Early Life

Esther Williams, Art and Music

Esther Williams Mozartiana

Esther Williams (1907-1969), Mozartiana, c.1940, Oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches (Gift of Reverend Richard L. Hillstrom)

Esther Williams (1907-1969) was from a Boston family that included numerous painters, among them her mother, Esther Baldwin Williams (1867-1964), with whom she has at times been confused, her mother’s cousin Adelaide Cole Chase (1868-1944), and Chase’s father, Joseph Foxcroft Cole (1837-1892), who taught art to his daughter and niece. Cole was a prominent proponent in America of the Barbizon landscape school of painting, having studied in France with Charles-Émile Jacque (1813-1894), and he was a co-founder of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It was thus perhaps preordained that Esther Williams would become an artist herself.

Art was a fundamental part of Williams’ home life during her youth. Her mother was an accomplished artist who, although she did not actively pursue a career, was nevertheless very interested in the art world. Not long before Williams’ birth, her mother became friends with the renowned Boston painter Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924). Baldwin Williams and Prendergast shared a studio for a time, and the Williams family owned a number of works by Prendergast, who depicted Baldwin Williams in a portrait. Correspondence between Esther Williams and her mother years later shows that the two of them shared a deep and lasting interest in art; many of their letters have been preserved in the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution.

Music was also an important part of the Williams family life. Baldwin Williams had studied piano as a girl, and her uncle J. Foxcroft Cole married the Belgian classical pianist Irma De Pelgrom. Baldwin Williams and her husband Oliver were charter subscribers to the Boston Symphony, and many of the letters between Esther Williams the younger and her mother discuss music with nearly equal zeal to art. Esther Williams, like her mother, became an avid amateur pianist, and her love of music, especially her own instrument, had an impact on her art as her career progressed.