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Van Rensselaer, Mariana (1851–1934)

Van Rensselaer, Mariana (1851–1934)

American author and first female professional art critic. Name variations: M.G. Van Rensselaer; Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer. Born Mariana Alley Griswold on February 21, 1851, in New York City; died of arteriosclerosis on January 20, 1934, in New York City; daughter of George and Lydia (Alley) Griswold; educated privately and in Europe; married SchuylerVan Rensselaer (an engineer), on April 14, 1873 (died 1884); children: George Griswold (b. 1875).

Selected works:

Book of American Figure Painters (1886); American Etchers (1886); Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works (1888); Six Portraits (1889); English Cathedrals (1892); Art Out of Doors (1893); Shall We Ask for the Suffrage (1894); One Man Who Was Content (stories, 1897); History of the City of New York in the Seventeenth Century (2 vols., 1909); Poems (1910); Many Children (children's poetry, 1921).

The second of seven children, Mariana Van Rensselaer was born Mariana Griswold in 1851 into a wealthy New York family of long standing. She was tutored at home and studied in Dresden, Germany, where in 1873 she married Schuyler Van Rensselaer, an engineer and fellow New Yorker, and descendant of the patroons of Rensselaerswyck. They had one son, George, two years later. They resided in New Brunswick, New Jersey, traveling to Europe and throughout the United States.

Van Rensselaer began her writing career in 1876 with the publication of a poem in Harper's Magazine and an article on art in American Architect and Building News. She published other articles and reviews of art exhibitions in New York City after that. A devotee of pictorial realism, she published both Book of American Figure Painters and American Etchers in 1886.

After her husband's death in 1884, Van Rensselaer moved to New York City to live with her mother. She also began writing her first important work in the field of architectural criticism, a series entitled "Recent American Architecture" in the Century Magazine. This led to the publication in 1888 of Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works, a study of the architect's work that is still a classic. She published studies of Renaissance and modern artists in Six Portraits in 1899, and was elected an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects a year later. In 1892, she published English Cathedrals, based on a series she had done for Century Magazine, followed by an introduction to landscape gardening, Art Out of Doors, in 1893. That same year, she became an honorary member of the Society of Landscape Artists.

Upon the sudden death of her son in 1894, Van Rensselaer became more interested in social issues. She taught literature at the University Settlement from 1894 to 1898 and was president of the women's auxiliary for two of those years. During this time, she wrote a collection of stories based in part on the slums of New York and their immigrant inhabitants, which she published as One Man Who Was Content. She was also a public school inspector for two years and served as president of the Public Education Association of New York City from 1899 to 1906. During her tenure, Van Rensselaer pressed to have reproductions of great art hung in every classroom. She also wrote a pamphlet arguing against women's suffrage entitled Shall We Ask for the Suffrage. Her opposition to the vote was based on her conviction that women, especially lower-class women, might be exploited by politicians and that they ought to concentrate instead on their families and the education of their children.

Interested in Colonial America, Van Rensselaer published a well-received two-volume History of the City of New York in the Seventeenth Century (1909). In 1910, Columbia University awarded her an honorary degree, and in 1923 she received a gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her other works include a book of romantic poetry and a volume of children's poetry. In a profile in Notable American Women, 1607–1950, John Early notes, "She always wrote for a general audience, and many of her books and articles depend heavily on the scholarship of others. But all her writings are shaped by her personal style and by her taste and intelligence." Van Rensselaer died in 1934.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer

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