Helen Nicolay was an accomplished individual. Capable of speaking five languages, she wrote 21 books (many biographies but also articles, plays and even fairy tales) in addition to the watercolor and oil paintings that she created throughout her life. Her work has been exhibited at the Corcoran, the National Academy of Design, and Wellesley College.
On display until October 27, the exhibition is curated by Suzanne Lee of The Lakes Gallery and demonstrates one aspect of a life that was rich in context, culture and citizenship. The daughter of John Nicolay, the former personal secretary and biographer to President Abraham Lincoln, Miss Nicolay’s life was connected to some of America’s most compelling historical events.
Miss Nicolay was educated at home by her parents and tutors as was the custom of the day. Some of that training included art and music appreciation. She studied art under J. Wells Champney. She was also an accomplished seamstress and made a cousin’s wedding dress. An only child, she was exposed to life in Washington, DC and traveled throughout Europe while her father was the consulate in Paris. “The strongest influence on her education, however, was the milieu in which she lived. The entire household revolved around the research and writing of the Lincoln biography.” (Ann Marie Maguire and John Maguire’s Lincoln’s Secretary’s Secretary, p.21)
The death of Miss Nicolay’s mother brought the father and daughter even closer. They continued to work on Lincoln’s 10-volume biography, live in Washington, DC and periodically travel, especially in the summers. Typically summering at the Isle of Shoals, they inadvertently chanced upon Shepard Hill in Holderness one summer and a long-term relationship with Holderness began in 1890. They built their own place in 1895 and called it Tannenruh.
John Nicolay died in 1901 and Helen Nicolay consoled herself by completing her father’s final work, A Short Life of Abraham Lincoln. She did not take credit for the work and published it in her father’s name and yet, this was the start of her writing career. She worked on a series known as The Boy’s Life of Lincoln. (Lincoln’s Secretary’s Secretary, p. 100)
Living most of her life in Washington, DC and summering in Holderness at Tannenruh for nearly 60 years, Miss Nicolay also enjoyed considerable travel which is reflected in her paintings. “Her artwork, much of it now in the hands of private collectors, is a vast mosaic of American Impressionism…Her life cannot be summed up by the scenery she painted, nor by her books alone. Helen Nicolay shared her life intimately with the people who helped to shape this country and left an indelible impression among those who remember her.” (Lincoln’s Secretary’s Secretary, p. 129)
An opening reception for the exhibit is on September 15, from 6:00 to 8:00 PM. Helen Nicolay’s paintings and watercolors are on exhibit thanks to the generosity of Patty Sue Salvadore. There are also three artifacts on loan from the Holderness Historical Society and its members.
Gallery hours: Monday, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, 9 AM - 5 PM
Wednesday and Saturdays, 9 AM - Noon
For more information about the exhibit, contact Franz Nicolay (no known relation to artist) at 603/630-2238 or firstname.lastname@example.org