Symbol opinion vote Comment: This is a lovely biography, but it is not an encyclopedia article. There's a lot of story here that doesn't help us understand why this person is notable and should be included in WP. Save this text, perhaps for publication elsewhere, and create a much shorter article that only speaks to her accomplishments. (Maybe one or two lines of family history.) LaMona (talk) 21:37, 8 December 2015 (UTC)

Sarah Freeman Clarke

Sarah Freeman Clarke (1808-1896) was a Boston-born landscape painter, illustrator, author, traveler, student of Dante, and founder of the town library in Marietta, Georgia. With little formal education, she made antebellum Boston her classroom, finding mentors among friends, family, teachers, and reformers. She became active in the city’s artistic and intellectual circles, studying painting with Washington Allston; exhibiting her work at the Boston Athenaeum; taking part in Margaret Fuller’s Conversations for women; illustrating Fuller’s first book, Summer on the Lakes; and contributing to The Dial, the journal founded in 1840 by members of the Transcendentalist Club. Beginning in the 1840s and for extended periods after the Civil War, Clarke lived in Italy, where she continued her landscape painting and studied Dante, later writing about his life and work for Century magazine. The town library in Marietta, which opened in 1893, grew out of the book collection Clarke had assembled over many years of travel and study.

Family background and early years

Sarah Freeman Clarke was born on January 21, 1808, in Dorchester, Massachusetts, the second of six children and the only daughter of Samuel Clarke (1779-1830) and Rebecca Parker Hull Clarke (1790-1865).[1] The Hulls and the Clarkes were long-established New England families, of shipmasters, merchants, lawyers, doctors, clergy, and soldiers.

Samuel Clarke tried his hand at a variety of occupations: the import business, farming, sheep raising, medicine, and pharmacy. In his memoirs, James Freeman Clarke (1810-1888), Sarah’s brother, portrays his father as being perhaps too curious and gifted for his own and his family’s good: “He was able to excel in so many directions that he never could limit himself to one…. [No] sooner had he succeeded in starting an enterprise than he lost interest in it and wished to do something else. His pleasure was in originating and inventing, not in executing.”[2] Among her father’s many pursuits was sketching and oil painting, sparking Sarah’s early interest.

In 1810, after a year of medical training in New Hampshire, Samuel established a practice in Newton, Massachusetts. During the summers, his mother and stepfather welcomed the family to their estate, also in Newton. Samuel’s stepfather was Dr. James Freeman Clarke (1759-1835), minister of King’s Chapel in Boston, America’s first Unitarian church.[3] As James recalls, Dr. Freeman’s aim as a teacher was to inspire interest in a subject rather than to push “mental discipline” as an end in itself;[4] study became a form of play and exploration for the children rather than a chore. Under his guidance, Sarah and her brothers studied Greek, Latin, literature, and mathematics.

Samuel moved the family to Boston in 1816, first to open a medical practice and then a drug store, which he managed until 1829. During these years, Sarah’s interest in art began to blossom, as a visit to the Boston Athenaeum’s first gallery exhibition in May 1827 demonstrates.[5] At that event, she would have seen the work of her future teacher, Washington Allston (1779-1843),[6] a Romantic painter of landscapes, historical and literary scenes, and biblical subjects. His example as a professional, a landscape painter, and a traveler would have great influence on Sarah.

In the late 1820s, the Clarke family returned to Newton, where Samuel established a chemical bleaching factory. In 1830, the factory, which Samuel had left uninsured, burned down. Deeply in debt, Samuel died later that year at the age of 51.

Boston, 1830s and 1840s

Assuming the role of breadwinner, Rebecca Clarke, with Sarah’s help, opened a boardinghouse in Boston. Sarah expanded her interests, giving art lessons to boardinghouse guests, attending lectures, and taking part in philanthropic activities. The boardinghouse itself served as a makeshift school for Sarah, emerging as a gathering place for budding educators, philosophers, and reformers whose names would become prominent in the years to come: educational reformer Horace Mann; the Unitarian minister, historian, and Harvard president Jared Sparks; and teachers Elizabeth and Mary Peabody. Among the regular visitors were Sarah’s brother James, while he was attending Harvard Divinity School, accompanied by his friend and confidante Margaret Fuller, with whom he shared a devotion to German romantic literature.

In September 1833, Rebecca closed the boardinghouse, and Sarah returned to the Freeman home in Newton, where she cared for her grandparents and her youngest brother, Thomas. She continued to extend her interests and friendships during the early and mid-1830s, teaching, painting, and displaying her work at the Boston Athenaeum.[7] Through Elizabeth Peabody, Sarah met the philosopher and educational reformer Bronson Alcott and in 1834 enrolled Thomas in Alcott’s controversial Temple School in Boston, where she taught drawing for no salary. She attended talks by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), then beginning his career as a lecturer, and may have met him as early as 1834 at a gathering after one of his lectures.[8] As her friendship with Emerson deepened, Sarah came to hold him in the highest esteem, telling James she felt “the compliment of being addressed with the respect due to a human being and a living soul.”[9] She would later credit his call to “satisfy the wants of your own soul…[regardless of] the prejudices of society”[10] as helping her to finally define herself as an artist.

In the fall of 1837, Sarah accepted her brother James’s invitation to visit him in Louisville, Kentucky, where he served as minister for a Unitarian church and edited the Western Messenger, a religious and literary journal. Upon her return to Boston the following spring, she drew on her memories to begin work on a landscape entitled Kentucky Beech Forest, which was first shown at the Boston Athenaeum in 1840 and in many exhibitions thereafter;[11] the Athenaeum purchased the painting that same year and displays it to this day.

In 1838,[12] Sarah became a pupil of Washington Allston, after having shown him a sample of her work at his Cambridgeport studio. Examining her paintings, he told her that he “regarded it as her duty to be a painter.”[13]

Sarah also took part in Margaret Fuller’s series of Conversations for women, held in Elizabeth Peabody’s West Street bookstore in Boston, from 1839 to 1844. These gatherings provided Fuller a livelihood after the death of her father and a means to encourage the women in her circle to broaden their thinking, learn from one another, and envision new possibilities for their lives. Suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton later viewed the Conversations as “the vindication of woman’s right to think.”[14]

Sarah continued to move in Transcendentalist circles, contributing a poem on Dante to the first issue of the Dial (July 1840), a journal of essays, criticism, and poetry created by members of the Transcendental Club, a group formed in 1836 to explore new perspectives in philosophy, theology, and literature. Sarah’s choice of subject reflects the widespread interest in Dante in mid-century New England, following the 1830 publication in the United States of Henry Francis Cary’s translation of The Divine Comedy.[15]

Travels at home and abroad

In 1841, James Freeman Clarke returned to Boston to found the Unitarian Church of the Disciples. He and Sarah began planning a trip to Chicago to visit brothers William and Abraham. In the summer of 1843, they began their voyage, joined by Margaret Fuller, Fuller’s friend Caroline Sturgis, and Rebecca Clarke.

Journeying by train, steamboat, canoe, open wagon, and sometimes on foot, the travelers visited Niagara Falls; the Great Lakes region; Chicago, where they met up with William Clarke; and scattered towns in Illinois and Wisconsin. Caroline Sturgis stayed with the group as far as Niagara Falls; James would return home in mid-June, after the Chicago leg of the journey.[16] The remaining three women then set out for a brief tour of northern Illinois, though Rebecca soon bowed out. Sarah and Margaret soldiered on through the countryside by wagon, with William as their driver and guide.[17] Throughout the journey, Sarah sketched the various scenes the party had encountered. Upon their return to Boston in September, Margaret began work on her first book, Summer on the Lakes—an account of the journey, made up of observations, anecdotes, poems, reflections, and social criticism. Sarah and Margaret worked together to select drawings to make into etchings to accompany the text. The book was published in 1844, with Sarah’s illustrations appearing in a second edition.

Inspired by the reminiscences of Allston and Emerson of their time spent abroad, in 1844 Sarah, with her brother William, crossed the Atlantic, bound for Italy, where she absorbed the landscape and art, drew outdoors, and mingled with the English and American writers and artists then forging expatriate communities in Rome. It would be the first of many trips, with interludes back in the States to fulfill family obligations. Inspired by her travels, Sarah produced a series of landscapes that she exhibited at the Athenaeum in the late 1850s and 1860.[18]

Civil War years

During the Civil War, Sarah and Rebecca joined with James and his wife, Anna, and Massachusetts governor John Andrew to form a “home for aging colored women” in Boston in 1860.[19] Sarah continued in her longstanding role of family caretaker, visiting her brothers and tending to her ailing mother. Rebecca Clarke died in May 1865, and Sarah assumed the duties of settling her mother’s estate, most of which she inherited.[20]

Amidst her responsibilities, Sarah set aside time to write an article for the February 1865 issue of the Atlantic Monthly on Washington Allston, who had died in July 1843. She begins her article by pointing out the role the Boston Athenaeum had played in securing Allston’s reputation in America and devotes the balance to describing individual landscapes, figures, and portraits.[21]

In Dante’s footsteps and one last adventure

In 1868, Sarah returned to Rome. During the spring and summer of 1869, she embarked on a tour of northern Italy, to sketch the towns and landscapes that Dante would have known. In 1884, back in America and long after her excursion, she would publish two studies in Century magazine: “Portraits of Dante,”[22] an examination of two renderings of the poet, and the two-part “Notes on the Exile of Dante,”[23] a first-person account of her northern Italy travels, illustrated with etchings made from her drawings.

In 1871, Sarah returned to the States in the wake of the Chicago fire, which had destroyed the homes and possessions of brothers William and Samuel, including their art collections and a trove of family letters and memorabilia.[24]

Sarah made one last overseas journey, which included an expedition on the Nile, accompanied by Mrs. Alexander Mitchell, a Milwaukee art patron, and a guide. Christening their boat, “Star of the West,” the travelers set sail on January 1, 1874.[25] As always during her travels, Sarah sketched and painted.

Later years: Marietta, Georgia

In 1879, family concerns would bring Sarah permanently back home to the States. She settled in Marietta, Georgia, where the Clarke family, seeking a mild climate, built a home a few blocks west of downtown. Here she found reward in a new occupation—book lending. Through years of travel and study, she had acquired a large collection of books, which she lent to friends, family, and neighbors. In 1882 she established more formal protocols, opening up the collection one day a week and creating a catalog. In seeking new titles to add to her collection, she consulted with her brother James, now a trustee of the Boston Public Library.

In 1890, Sarah wrote to the president of the Marietta Library Association, proposing to merge her collection with that of the association to create a permanent library. A fundraiser provided the necessary cash to purchase a lot, and Sarah became actively involved in planning the design of the structure, which opened in October 1893. An article in the Marietta Daily Journal stated that Sarah Clarke had contributed more than 2,000 books.[26] Today, the Clarke Library is part of the 16-branch Cobb County Library System.[27]

During Sarah’s last years, she received many visitors and took a lively interest in current events, particularly the 1896 presidential campaign between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan. Sarah Clarke died on November 17, 1896, at the family home and was buried at the St. James Episcopal Cemetery in Marietta.


  1. Information on the life of Sarah Freeman Clarke is drawn from Joan Alice Kopp, Sarah Freeman Clarke, 1808-1896: a woman of the nineteenth century (Marietta, Ga: Cobb Landmarks & Historical Society, 1993); Arthur S. Bolster, James Freeman Clarke, disciple to advancing truth (Boston: Beacon Press, 1954), especially chapters 1 through 3; and James Freeman Clarke, Autobiography, diary and correspondence, ed. by Edward Everett Hale (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1891).
  2. J.F. Clarke, Autobiography, 5.
  3. "James Freeman,"Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography, accessed June 26, 2015.
  4. Clarke, Autobiography, diary and correspondence, p. 17.
  5. Kopp (p. 5) states that Clarke attended the exhibition on her own, unescorted by a gentleman, shocking Boston society. The account of the exhibition in Mabel Munson Swan, The Athenaeum Gallery, 1827-1873: The Boston Athenaeum as an early patron of art (Boston: Boston Athenaeum, 1940), casts doubt on the assertion that Clarke’s presence at the exhibition would have caused a stir. Swan (p. 20) quotes an announcement of the exhibition made in The Columbian Centinel, dated May 12, 1827: “Visitors will find that every attention has been paid to their accommodation; and Ladies will experience no embarrassment or difficulty in visiting the gallery without the attendance of gentlemen.” She suggests that the policy itself of allowing women to enter the exhibition unescorted would have been “startling” at the time, noting that Athenaeum membership was then limited to men.
  6. Swan, The Athenaeum Gallery, 1827-1873, 22, 196.
  7. Ibid., 213.
  8. Joel Myerson, “A true and high-minded person: Transcendentalist Sarah Clarke,” Southwest Review, Spring 1974, 167.
  9. Ibid., 167.
  10. Quoted in Charles Capper, Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life, v. 1, The private years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 215.
  11. Kopp, Sarah Freeman Clarke, 24, 29 n. 3.
  12. Kopp (p. 30, n. 18) points out that some sources date Sarah Clarke’s meeting with Allston as taking place several years earlier. She suggests that prior references to Allston in Clarke’s writings reflect a more casual acquaintance and that Allston’s influence is apparent in her work after 1838.
  13. Ibid., 27.
  14. "Fuller and Her Conversations," American Transcendentalism Web, accessed June 27, 2015
  15. Kathleen Verduin, “ ‘The inward life of love’: Margaret Fuller and the Vita Nuova,” Dante Studies, 114 (1996): 293-4.
  16. Charles Capper, Margaret Fuller, v. 2, The public years (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 124, 126.
  17. Ibid., 126.
  18. See Kopp, Sarah Freeman Clarke, 69. See also Robert Perkins and William Gavin, Boston Athenaeum Exhibition Index, 1827-1874 (Boston: The Library of the Boston Athenaeum, 1980), 35.
  19. Kopp, Sarah Freeman Clarke, 73.
  20. Ibid., 78, n. 14.
  21. Sarah Freeman Clarke, “Our first great painter, and his works,” The Atlantic Monthly, 15:88 (Feb. 1865): 129-141.
  22. Sarah Freeman Clarke, “The portraits of Dante,” The Century, 27:4 (Feb. 1884): 574-581.
  23. Sarah Freeman Clarke, “Notes on the exile of Dante,” The Century, 27:5 (Mar. 1884), 734-752, and 27:6 (Apr. 1884), 833-850.
  24. Kopp, Sarah Freeman Clarke, 81.
  25. Ibid., 81-82.
  26. Ibid., 94.
  27. “Preservation Plan and Design Guidelines for the Clarke Library: History of the Clarke Library”, accessed Sept. 6, 2015; Cobb County Public Library System, [1], accessed Oct. 4, 2015.

External Links

The Boston Athenaeum website

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