‘Never, Never Draw Anything Too Small’
Sister Angelique and Georgia O’KeefFe
Drawing above: On Lake Wingra by Georgia O'Keeffe
by Mary Paynter, OP
One of America’s finest artists, Georgia O’Keeffe, received an art lesson from our Sister Angelique Sabourin, OP (1867–1957), that she never forgot. She was firmly told not to draw anything “too small”—a lesson O’Keeffe remembered all her life. Who was this Sinsinawa Dominican art teacher that so impressed the famous artist?
Angelique Sabourin was born on a farm near the little community of Wotton, Quebec, Oct. 6, 1867. Named Delia by her parents, she was the second youngest child (with five brothers and five sisters). Her father, Nordbert Sabourin, was French-Canadian, while her mother, Nancy Battle Sabourin, was born in Ireland. Delia’s family moved to Lewiston, ME, in the early 1870s. By the time of the 1880 United States Census, she and other family members were registered among the large French-Canadian community, many of whom had migrated to work in the cotton mills there.
She entered our Dominican Congregation in March 1899 at age 31, making her first profession in August 1900. Had she been an art teacher in some school in New England? And what connection brought her west to Sinsinawa? No records indicate the answers; however, the Dominican friars had a parish in the French-Canadian settlement in Lewiston, so perhaps it was a friar who introduced her to our Congregation.
Angelique’s first assignment after profession was teaching art at Edgewood Academy of the Sacred Heart in Madison, WI. Already an experienced artist and teacher, she took charge of the art department there. That same fall, Georgia O’Keeffe, then 13, from a farm near Sun Prairie, WI, became a freshman boarder, studying and living at Edgewood during 1900–1901. She took art classes from Angelique that year, and, much later, when she was in her 80s, O’Keeffe described her experience:
“The fall I was 13, I was taken to boarding school—a Dominican convent beyond Madison. The Sister who had charge of the art department had beautiful, large dark eyes and very white lovely hands, but she always felt a bit hot and stuffy to me. My first day in the studio she placed a white plaster cast of a baby’s hand on a table, gave me some charcoal and told me to draw it. I worked laboriously—all in a cramp—drawing the baby’s hand with a very heavy line. I thought my drawing very nice and I liked doing it. When the Sister saw it, she said I had drawn the hand too small and my lines were all too black. She particularly emphasized the fact that it was too small. . . . I wasn’t convinced that she was right, but I said to myself that I would never have that happen again. I would never, never draw anything too small.” (Quote from Georgia O’Keeffe, by Georgia O’Keeffe, Viking Press, NY, 1976.)
Angelique clearly recognized the budding talent in O’Keeffe because she surprised Georgia by adding her name boldly on a sketch that was chosen for a select display of student art. She also saved Georgia’s sketch of duck hunters on Lake Wingra to use as an illustration in the 1901–02 Edgewood Academy catalog—again adding “G. O’Keeffe” to the sketch. Perhaps she had a special empathy for a young, talented artist like herself who began life on a farm.
Angelique’s first mission at Edgewood extended for 10 years. Following that, she taught at various missions, including nine years at Rosary College where she painted the large Stations of the Cross for the chapel there. Her last 11 years (before going to St. Dominic Villa) were spent at St. Clara, Sinsinawa. There, in spite of failing eyesight, she designed and did the needlework (including dyeing all the silk threads) for a beautiful set of vestments prepared for the Congregation centennial. Angelique died at St. Dominic Villa July 16, 1957. One can only wonder what, in her last years, she must have thought of the remarkable accomplishments of Georgia O’Keeffe, that little Edgewood freshman from a farm near Sun Prairie.