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Nellie Taft, 75, free-spirited painter of impressionist art

Ms. Taft was very social but highly private, a niece said.

NELLIE TAFT

Ms. Taft was very social but highly private, a niece said.

As complex as the abstract impressionist paintings she created, Nellie Leaman Taft was spirited and social, and also needed time alone to paint and to curate exhibitions.

Among her ancestors was President William Howard Taft, and “the thing I was really struck with is that she’s somebody who has a deep sense of her own personal history, and her connection to one of the great American families,” said Adam Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

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Weinberg added, however, that “she in many ways lived in a relatively conservative bastion in Boston, yet this was a person who was a rebel in her own way.”

She was in her 50s when she moved to Boston to attend the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Ms. Taft also was among the early women to join the formerly all-male St. Botolph Club.

Ms. Taft, whose paintings were featured in exhibitions and collections from Cincinnati to Damariscotta, Maine, died of complications from lymphoma Dec. 17 in her home in the Back Bay. She was 75.

“In a funny way, Nellie had two sides,” said Hope Klebenov of Somerville, a niece through Ms. Taft’s former husband, the late Arthur Middleton Gammell.

“She was both highly social and deeply private, both spontaneous and very organized,” Klebenov said.

“She had a tremendous sense of fun, and she was also very disciplined.”

In the Brickbottom Gallery in Somerville, where Ms. Taft set up a studio, she kept her art materials meticulously arranged. Meanwhile, her abstract impressionist paintings highlighted her free-spirited side.

Painting in a discipline dominated by men, Ms. Taft possessed an independent streak, Weinberg said, and that helped sharpen her focus on her work.

“I think she was rather self-effacing and low-key, but was also somebody who had her own strong opinions and was strong-willed,” he said.

Ms. Taft grew up in Cincinnati and graduated from St. Timothy’s School in Maryland. Her ancestors also included President William Henry Harrison, according to her family.

While studying at Reed College in Portland, Ore., she decided to pursue painting. She later graduated from Columbia University in New York City with a bachelor’s degree in art history, and from Columbia’s Teachers College with a master’s in education.

Ms. Taft taught at a Montessori school and opened her own school in Warwick, R.I.

“She was fabulous with children, and knew how to motivate children,” said Anita Lincoln of the Back Bay, a longtime friend. “She would expect discipline and get them to toe the line. She could look at a situation and analyze it and succeed at whatever she was trying to get across.”

Ms. Taft “had an intrinsic understanding of children,” Klebenov said. “The spontaneity and warmth that are in her work came through in her personality whenever she was with children.”

Klebenov added that “even when she was very sick, she would just grin when she was near them.”

After Ms. Taft and Gammell divorced, she moved at the beginning of the 1980s back to Cincinnati, where she created pieces that were featured in collections including the Cincinnati Art Museum.

“I believe what drew Nellie to art was her appreciation of the transcendent in the everyday,” Klebenov said.

Abstract impressionism was popular while Ms. Taft was growing up, but was less so by the time she was creating her own paintings.

Nevertheless, Klebenov said, “the majesty and the innovation, the breaking away from tradition, was what drew her to the work of modernists in the 1950s.”

Ms. Taft moved to Boston in 1986 and attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, completing its fifth-year program, which is designed to facilitate the transformation from student to independent artist. The school awarded her traveling scholarships and she spent time in Italy.

In a dedication to her at an exhibition, George Lynde, who chairs the art committee at the St. Botolph Club in Boston, quoted Ms. Taft as saying about the walls in Rome: “I studied the richness of their depth, the surfaces of the painted stucco, and the ever-present graffiti. Back in Boston, I asked, what have I learned? My answer was ‘Heart Soundings,’ a work I’ve always regarded as my miracle painting.”

After joining the St. Botolph Club, Ms. Taft became a member of the Foundation Board. She also was part of the art committee and created an artist member’s room in the club’s conservatory, where she was the curator for many exhibitions.

She benefited, Lynde said, from being “an artist herself, and quite an accomplished one.”

Ms. Taft, who served on the national committee at the Whitney Museum of American Art, exhibited her work at the Nielsen Gallery in Boston and at galleries in Cincinnati and Maine.

“Anything that she designed, anything that she built, whether it was a present or the house she built in Maine, she did beautifully,” Klebenov said.

A service was held in Ohio for Ms. Taft, who in addition to Klebenov, leaves her brother, Dudley S. Taft Sr. of Chapel Hill, N.C.

Like her paintings, Ms. Taft was often awash in bright colors.

“Because of her artistic sense, she was always beautifully presented,” Lincoln said. “She dressed impeccably. She just had exquisite taste.”

Emma Stickgold can be reached at estickgoldobits@gmail.com.

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