Aili Waller, a third-year in the College of Arts and Sciences, applies her experience with family genealogy research to her studies in art history, specifically 19th-century women who were landscape painters. Photo by Eric Sucar. 

February 27, 2023

Discovering the lives and work of 19th-century female landscape painters, third-year Aili Waller applies her experience with family genealogy research to her studies in art history. 

Penn Today | Louisa Shepard | February 24, 2033 

It had been a long day of closely reading letters written by a painter who lived in the 1800s. Needing a break, Penn history of art student Aili Waller turned her attention to a stack of 19th-century sketchbooks in the museum’s library, choosing the one that didn’t look like the others.

Paging through, she recognized name after name of the obscure artists she had been researching for months, beginning with an assignment in a course on American art. She was looking for one name in particular, Mary Josephine Walters, a painter whose life she had been reconstructing through genealogical sleuthing.

And there, on the last page, says Waller, she saw a detailed painted landscape.

“It was such a crazy moment for me because the second I flipped that page and I looked at it, before I even saw the name, I immediately thought, ‘That’s a Josephine Walters painting,’” says Waller, a third-year in the College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s a previously unknown work by the artist.”

The surprise discovery was shared by her mother who joined her on the weeklong research excursion last summer to the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. The two had been researching their family ancestry for years, including many trips to Philadelphia.

“I love genealogy because it’s all biography; it’s all stories, so for me as a kid it was an easier way to envision the past because this was a person’s life,” says Waller, who is from Lexington, Virginia. “I loved all those stories. And I just loved all those documents.”

Now Waller is applying those research methods to 19th-century women landscape artists, including deep dives into censuses and city directories and records of births, deaths, marriages, land, wills, probate, and maps and newspapers.

“I realized that all this genealogy research that I started doing as a kid, that’s what original research is,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, I can do original research. It’s not a scary thing.’ ”

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Waller has taken courses and completed an independent study with Michael Leja (right), history of art professor, and is also working with him as a researcher. Photo by Eric Sucar.