Watson Family Gifts

The First Generation

Emily Sibley Watson (1855-1945)

James Sibley Watson (1860-1951)

Emily and James Sibley Watson acquired their collections from Fifth Avenue galleries, international exhibitions, far-flung travels that ranged from Labrador to Morocco, and Rochester artists' studios. Thanks to their generosity, hundreds of works of art entered MAG's permanent collection between 1913 and 1951, the year that James Sibley Watson died. Their collecting focus was broad and spanned ancient to modern, American to Asian .

As a ten-year-old, she traveled with her parents to Europe and while her father, Hiram Sibley, furthered the business interests of Western Union, Emily and her governess toured Paris. Even at that young age, her letters indicate a strong interest in art and architecture that she would later share with both of her husbands, her children, and ultimately her community.

The end of her ill-fated first marriage left Mrs. Watson (then Mrs. Averell) alone to raise two young children. Her daughter, Louise, died of diphtheria in 1886 at the age of 9. In 1904, her son, James G. Averell, died of typhoid at the age of twenty-six. A Harvard-educated architect, he loved "life, beauty, and honor," a phrase carved on the base of Memory, on view on MAG's second floor. Mrs. Watson donated the funds to build the Memorial Art Gallery to commemorate this beloved son.

From their gracious home at 11 Prince Street, the Watsons generously supported the Rochester community. In addition to MAG, Genesee Hospital, and Hochstein School of Music and Dance, many other institutions and individuals benefited and flourished thanks to this remarkable family.

The Second Generation

James Sibley Watson, Jr. (1894-1982)

Hildegarde Lasell Watson (1888-1976)

James Sibley Watson, Jr. and his wife Hildegarde Lasell Watson were born to families that esteemed the arts. They were also well-matched in the creative talents they brought to their marriage. Sibley, as he was called, was a photographer, filmmaker, writer, and publisher of the forward-thinking art and literary magazine The Dial in addition to being a radiologist at Strong Memorial Hospital. Hildegarde, from a cosmopolitan family in Massachusetts, was a singer, an artist and a writer as well as a staunch advocate for the arts in the community. Their significant role in the international world of arts and letters, their keen appreciation of contemporary art, and their connections to The Dial resulted in a choice collection of painting, drawing, prints and sculpture.

While the senior Watsons' taste was traditional, with forays into the "art of the new," their son and his wife were interested nearly exclusively in the experimental and the unconventional. At Harvard in the 'teens, Sibley found friends who shared his interests: Edward Nagel, the stepson of sculptor Gaston Lachaise; the poet and painter E.E. Cummings; and Scofield Thayer, with whom Watson purchased and published The Dial. When they took on publishing The Dial in 1919, it became, in the words of poet William Carlos Williams, an outlet for "the heat in us, a core and a drive that was gathering headway upon the theme of rediscovery of ... the elementary principle of all art." The Dial published the work of modernists Picasso, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and Brancusi, among others. T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land had its American debut in The Dial in 1922. A number of these luminaries visited Rochester and stayed with the Watsons at their home at 6 Sibley Place.

By 1928, the focus of Watson's prodigious intelligence had shifted from publishing to film; he is perhaps best known for the silent films The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) and Lot in Sodom (1933), both starring Hildegarde Watson. The two films were produced around the corner on Prince Street, in the barn behind MAG founder Emily Sibley Watson's home.

  • <p>James Sibley Watson, Jr. and Hildegarde Lasell Watson and their son Michael in the garden behind Emily Sibley Watson's home on Prince Street. </p>
  • <p>Michael &amp; Nicoleta Watson, Pittsford 1983. </p>

The Third Generation

Michael Lasell Watson (1918-2012)

Nicoleta Zervas Watson (1927-2011)

Michael and Nicoleta Watson, the son and daughter-in-law of James Sibley Watson, Jr. and Hildegarde Watson, lived with works of art that were passed down to them by the previous two generations, and generously donated many of them to the Memorial Art Gallery. After majoring in music at Harvard, Michael Watson became a scientist like his father, doing some of the earliest research into mitochondria using electron microscopy at the University of Rochester.

While sharing their parents' and grandparents' love of music and art, this generation of Watsons were connoisseurs of craft. During the 1960s, they invited Wharton Esherick to design their new home in Pittsford, near Lake Lacoma. Esherick is considered the father of the Studio Furniture movement and was an important influence on Rochester artist Wendell Castle. The home's unusual structure, with a sculptural wood staircase by Esherick, also included tiles made by ceramist and long-time family friend Frans Wildenhain, who lived nearby.

Like his father, Michael Watson was multi-talented. In addition to being a musician, he was a photographer, grew orchids, made telescopes and ground his own lenses, and designed and patented loudspeakers. He also became an accomplished woodworker and made exceptionally elegant pieces of furniture, including the small table on view in this exhibition.

We are grateful to the children of Michael Watson for depositing the family's archival material at MAG. It has been and will continue to be an important resource for scholars interested in this exceptional group of "connoisseurs around the corner."