There are no signatures on any of the drawings, merely an unidentified pencil note in the front of the drawing book, "Bent or French, Sally Bent" and several pieces of correspondence addressed to Nancy Bent and an envelope identifying the contents as "relics of Nancy Bent." There a few sparse clues, to the identity of the skillful artist. We have uncovered clues, including the family history, and others which point to Nancy Bent (1799-1889) as the artist. Nancy's father, Joseph Bent, Jr., a farmer, was born August 21, 1762 in Milton, Massachusetts, he died September 25, 1849, in Milton. Joseph Bent Jr. was a major in the militia, moderator of the town meetings in 1808, 1810 and 1814. He was the son of blacksmith Joseph Bent (1735-1774) and his wife Mehitable Crehore (-1795), both natives of Milton. Joseph Bent Jr., married Sarah White of Milton on March 20, 1787, she died January 19, 1857. Together they had three daughters, Sally Bent, born November 23, 1787, died unmarried in Milton, July 15, 1829; Eunice Bent, born January 20, 1790, died unmarried in Milton February 5, 1857; and Nancy Bent, born November 29, 1799, died unmarried in Milton, April 1, 1889, Nancy was buried in the Milton Cemetery.
The 1870 Census shows that Nancy was then an inmate of the Worcester Insane Asylum, listed as "Insane." A note written by Nancy on one of her unfinished drawings states that she "went raving crazy" while working on it and spent nine years in the Worcester institution. The 1860 Census records Nancy living at her home in Milton, with several boarders living there as well. Nancy is not found in the 1865 Massachusetts State Census, presumably whatever precipitated her mental breakdown occurred between 1860 and 1865. However, the cause and nature of her breakdown can only be speculated upon, she had lost her mother and surviving sister within several weeks of each other in 1857, and was left alone for the first time in her life. Nancy states, in her note, that her breakdown was the result of "something so distressing" that she "knew there would be years of evil resulting from it." News of the outbreak of the Civil War may have had a role in the onset of her illness.
An 1881 letter in the collection, addressed to Nancy, care of Mrs. W. L. Foster, Pembroke, Massachusetts, from Mary E. Rice, of East Rindge, New Hampshire, asks the following question: "Do you still enjoy flowers and painting as you used to? I hope so, for one must have some occupation or life isn't worth much…"
The Milton Public Library held an exhibit of "Water Colors of Wild Flowers by Nancy Bent" in January-February 1917.1
Albert Teele, in his, History of Milton Mass., 1640-1887 [Boston: 1887], mentions that the Bent family property adjoined that of Mr. Charles C. Crehore, near the river and Paul's bridge. Teele's book also contains an extensive chapter on the flowers, trees and birds of Milton, a source of local pride. The Worcester Insane Asylum opened in 1832, by order of the Governor of Massachusetts, to help care for the mentally ill members of nearby communities, one of the first of its kind in the state.
The collection contains the following:
1. The watercolors prepared for the "Flowers of Milton" by an accomplished, but unidentified amateur artist1, are executed on 30 separate sheets, each measuring approximately 15 x 11 inches, delicately rendered individual flowers, wreaths, or bouquets. On four of the sketches the artist has carefully cut out and laid down her sketches on to a new sheet.
There are also 10 un-numbered watercolors and unfinished drawings, each also approximately 15 x 11 inches. Some are unfinished, and reveal Nancy's meticulous working methods, from the initial pencil drawing to completed watercolor.
All of the numbered drawings are labeled with the month the flower was drawn and several are also dated, either 1855 or 1865; a few have been given two different sketch numbers, perhaps indicating they came from two different series of sketches. A pencil note by the artist in the margin of one of the drawings states that No. 5 is missing, and was "stolen, with five others belonging to another set." Another pencil note mentions Blue Hill, near Milton, and one in the margin of drawing number 7 reads: "This painting was from a twig from a tree that grew close to Mr. Charles Crehore's yard, a striped apple."
A lengthier note gives some indication of the anonymous artist's background, and a painful, mysterious episode in her life, it is on the verso of one of the larger unnumbered sheets of sketches:
"Unfinished, I laid it right down & went raving crazy. I intended to have painted Spring, Summer, Autumn, & Winter, and had purchased four sheets of Bristol board, for the purpose. I had gone on so far, with my spring, when I heard something so distressing, for I knew there would be years of evil resulting from it that it sent me to Worcester Insane Assylum [sic] for nine years - & it has proved even worse than I expected."
2. The drawing book, a small quarto, contains 15 watercolors of birds, flowers, and scenes, plus two pencil sketches, several with caption titles. The first watercolor (detached) is of a wreath of flowers carefully drawn and colored, then cut out and laid down on the page, with a "ribbon" label printed with the caption: "Wild Flowers of Milton … 1847" and a short 9 line ode to flowers written in a small, neat hand; the second watercolor is likewise, a wreath of flowers surrounding another hand-written poem, this one dated 1844. In addition to delicately rendered flowers, local scenes, and birds such as the Baltimore Oriole and the Carolina Parrot, the artist also drew two sketches of foreign scenes: "View of Mount Lebanon with its convents" and "Neapolitan Castles."
3. A group of approximately 50 miscellaneous drawings and sketches, some in water color, others pen-and-ink or pencil, includes a number of labeled floral drawings similar to the one described above, but also includes animals, portraits, designs for fabrics, outdoor scenes, architectural studies, including a pencil sketch of her home, etc.
4. A lot of miscellaneous correspondence and ephemera, including several addressed to Nancy Bent.
1. Levy, Florence, editor, American Art Annual, Vol. XIV. Washington, D.C.: American Federation of Arts, 1917, p. 138. (Inventory #: 30570)