Susan C. Waters, née Susan Catherine Moore, painted in the region around the New York-Pennsylvania border. She was one of two daughters of a cooper, Lark Moore, and his wife, Sally, who moved back and forth between Friendsville, Pennsylvania, and Binghamton, New York. Susan was born in Binghamton on 18 May 1823. Demonstrating artistic promise at an early age, she paid both her own and her sister's tuitions at the Friendsville Boarding School for Females by "painting copies for the course in Natural History." Although Susan's teachers considered her a prodigy, the art instruction at this school is her only documented artistic education. On 27 June 1841 she married William C. Waters, a Friendsville Quaker, "by whom she was encouraged to develop her talent." No children are recorded.
No works from the earliest years of Susan Waters' activity have been discovered. A portrait of The Downs Children of Cannonsville, New York (present location unknown), painted in 1843, is her earliest known work. Waters' travels are documented by the hometowns of her sitters which she frequently inscribed in large script on the reverse of her paintings. In 1843 she visited Athens, Pennsylvania, where she painted two double portraits of children. She worked in the New York towns of Oxford, Kelloggsville, and Berkshire in 1844, and the following year painted in Richford and again in Berkshire.
After 1846 there are no portraits firmly attributed to Susan Waters, probably due to her husband's poor health. She did not abandon painting, however, and in fact decided to try to support herself and her husband by painting for the market. To this end, Waters wrote a letter on 26 April 1851 to a Mr. Niven of the American Art Union concerning two landscape views she had "sketched from nature." In this letter she also indicated that she had been teaching painting, but that her husband's illness had compelled her to stop. A newspaper biography of 1900 states that she and her husband "established themselves as artists and took fine ambrotypes and daguerreotypes," but does not provide the date.
The Waters' life did not become sedentary. They continued to reside in Friendsville for several years, but by May of 1852 they had moved to Bordentown, New Jersey. The couple journeyed to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in 1855, returned to Friendsville four years later, and in 1866 finally resettled in Bordentown, where they spent the rest of their lives.
In Bordentown Waters painted animal and still life pictures in a style far more sophisticated and academic than her earlier attempts at portraiture. These date from 1870 to her death, and their increased naturalism suggests that the artist had seriously studied academic art in the preceding twenty-five years. The greatest triumph of her career came in 1876 when she exhibited two works of animal subjects at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Her obituary informs us that "her fame after the Centennial was far beyond expectation, causing a continuous receipt of orders impossible to fill." She became a local celebrity in Bordentown, best known for her renderings of sheep grazing in landscapes.
Waters, a financial success, continued to paint until two months before her death. Her early decision to become an itinerant oil painter and her reliance upon her art for financial support were remarkable for a woman in nineteenth-century America. Consistent with her choice to pursue a career were her liberal attitude toward women and work and her active support of the Woman's Suffrage Movement. She died in Trenton 7 July 1900. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Heslip, Colleen Cowles. Mrs. Susan C. Waters, 19th-Century Itinerant Painter. Exh. cat. Bedford Gallery, Longwood Fine Arts Center, Longwood College; Arnot Art Museum, Elmira, NY. Farmville, Virginia, 1979.
Schweizer, Paul D. "A Letter by Susan Waters Provides New Information on Her Career." American Art Journal 19 (Winter 1987): 76-77.
Chotner, Deborah, with contributions by Julie Aronson, Sarah D. Cash, and Laurie Weitzenkorn. American Naive Paintings. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 388-389.