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If not for two things, the name Susan Watkins might mean something to more than a handful of patrons at a Norfolk museum. But a peculiar combination of family money and an early death intervened, and Watkins fell into obscurity at just the moment she seemed poised for the fame she had ambitiously pursued.
An accomplished painter who’d studied under well-regarded teachers in New York and Paris, Watkins had mastered her talent by the early 20th century when women were finally beginning to find acceptance as artists.
A little younger than Mary Cassatt and a little older than Georgia O’Keeffe, Watkins was every bit their equal at similar stages of artistic development. She had an especially stunning style with portraiture. Art patron and collector Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who would later create her own museum, acquired a Watkins.
A century later, though, when the works of Cassatt and O’Keeffe regularly sell for millions of dollars, only a handful of finished paintings by Watkins are known to exist, and most are in a single collection.
“Life got in the way,” said Crawford Alexander Mann III, the curator of American art at Norfolk’s Chrysler Museum of Art, which has the paintings, as well as a collection of Watkins’ smaller works and sketchbooks. “She didn’t live to see (the fame).”
Watkins took ill while living in Europe, then quickly married a suitor she’d long spurned and moved with him back to the US in 1910. They settled in his hometown of Norfolk. About 3 years later, she died, likely of cancer, at age 37.
Her chance at widespread fame died then, too, because so little of her work had been distributed, and what she’d saved herself wound up in the possession of her relatively new husband, Norfolk banker Goldsborough Serpell.
Serpell proved a good, if guarded, custodian of the work. He kept...