My Cousin the Artist

Meet Madeleine Keely

Self portrait of Madeline Keely in her art studio, Loudon Heights, Charleston, WV ca early 1900s.

What do I remember about her?  I remember her wide smile; the twinkle in her eyes; the smell of oil paints, varnish, turpentine; the huge bright window lights of her studio and large and small paintings. It was too much to take in as a child.

She was 67 when I was born. She retired around the time I was 4 years old. We didn’t run around in the same circles, you see. My one visit to her home is vague, so vague I cannot remember how old I was. I wish it was otherwise. I vividly remember some of her paintings. The one imbedded in my mind is of a woman (one of my relatives) sitting at an old Saxony spindle wheel with a portrait on the wall of another woman (also a relative).

These last several days, I have been researching for this article. I have been reading and transcribing over 100 newspaper clips about my first cousin, twice removed. She is my grandfather’s first cousin.

I mourn that I never got to know her in life. Getting to know a cousin by way of newspaper clippings, is most difficult. Searching clips from the 20s through the 70s is a lot of effort to meet someone, seeing only a public view spread out over some 52 years. But it is what it is. So, say hello to Madeleine Keely. Her first name is Harriette, but call her Madeleine, please.

From The Charleston Daily Mail, February 12, 1939 morning edition: “Miss Madeleine Keely, art supervisor for Kanawha County Public Schools, was photographed at her home in Loudon Heights while she was at work on one of her many beautiful and attractive paintings. In her small studio at her home are hung many of her paintings of portraits, landscapes, flowers and still-life studies.”

The descriptors that leap off the pages of both the Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail are, “Definitely the artist,” and “creative and focused.”

Her presence and persistence are evident in her art and her teaching art in elementary schools from 1893 for 21 years. She then moved into a supervisory role at the county level, teaching art teachers for 28 years until her retirement in 1942, all in her home among the hills in the Kanawha Valley. She had a strong set of values, evident by her love for helping her students stay in touch with the art in their heart. She loved her role as a teacher, a teacher of art, encouraging children to keep their creativity close as they grew older. Many never forgot her gift and teaching of teachers.

My cousin was also quiet and reserved. She was satisfied being out of the limelight, being at ease with the leadership of her peers. But, when publicity was because of her art, she never refused. In fact, she seemed to enjoy her three big spreads being shared in the Charleston dailies. She would, when required, not hesitate to assume leadership, as she did on several occasions with the Allied Artists Association.

She joined the Baptist Temple when she was 19, remaining faithful throughout the rest of her life.  She occasionally crossed the street to events at the Methodist Christ Church. Yet, it may be a mistake to think of her as being too much a Victorian kind of woman.

She traveled often, often alone. There are several snippets such as the following from the April 30, 1931, Charleston Daily Mail regarding her travels:  “Madeleine Keely, supervisor of art in the Charleston schools, is attending the meeting of the Western Art Association in Louisville, KY.”

She attended art schools in Cincinnati and Cleveland, Ohio, and she traveled to New York City in the midst of the roaring twenties with its jauntiness, its freewheeling. However, going to NYC at the age of 43, does not make her a flapper, but who can say from this distance of time? While there, she studied at New York School of Applied Arts (for women), where its founder, Ellen Dunlap Hopkins, taught. It is noted that Hopkins’ hobby was landscape painting, a style favored also by my cousin. This school was well-endowed and known internationally.  

Madeleine was also an activist. In the midst of prohibition, the wets seemed to be winning the day. She was there resisting. She was a dry.

She was quiet, reserved, loyal and faithful, thorough, responsible and dependable — certainly, a doer, studious.  She spent the summers of 1924 and 1926 teaching classes for teachers like free-hand drawing and public-school art for Marshall University’s Charleston extension courses.

Harriette Madeleine Keely was born in the family home just being finished in the tiny community of Loudon Heights. Her Father William was my great grandfather’s brother, George. Along with their father Josiah, George and William fought in the civil war down in Louisiana. Josiah died in New Orleans. After the war, the two sons moved with their families to the new state of West Virginia. William moved to WV almost immediately following the war with George coming in the late 1860s.

Madeleine’s obituary is brief, very brief. She held membership in The Delta Kappa Gamma Society, Circle No. 7 of the Baptist Temple, Western Art Association, Kanawha Valley Chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution, was a founding member of the Allied Artists Association, an organizing member of the West Virginia State Historical Society and the State Education Association.

Gladiolus,oil on cardboard panel 30.48 cm x 60. 96 cm (12 in x 24 in)

I have two of Madeleine’s paintings in my home, one given to me by my mother shortly after my father’s death in 2005. Madeline painted it ca 1889 when she was in high school and won a Blue Ribbon from 4H fair. It is a flowing piece for a teenager. A muted tone, with coarse texture combined with its organic shape and subtle colors offer a peaceful and somewhat somber depth.

Just recently, I received another painting of Madeleine’s from my cousin Jeryl Lynn Elliot MacConnel, Iowa City, Iowa, who wrote:  “When I was eleven (1956) Grandma (Ester Keely Hildebrand) took me on the bus to Charleston, WV to visit Aunt Truth Keely. While we were there, she took us over to visit Madeline Keely, Aunt Truth’s first cousin. Madeline was quite elderly and in a wheelchair. She was in her studio with lots of her paintings and photographs. She invited me to choose one. This painting that I sent to you has hung in my bedroom ever since. Most of the paintings in her studio were of flower arrangements.” —Jeri Lynn

Madeline Keely “Pansies with Narcissus and Hyacinthus,” oil on canvas 40.64 cm x 50.80cm (16 in x 20 in)

This painting now rests on the wall to the right of our kitchen fireplace. Its flowing lines are both simple and delicate. It is quite confident and dramatic in tone with a texture that is very smooth. I like its curvaceous shape and dramatic movement focused by the tapestry folds in the lower right. The bold dark vase contrasts the vibrant colors. Our morning light brings out its organic, asymmetrical depth a as I sip my morning coffee. Well done my first cousin twice removed.