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Elmer and Emma Constant: A Love Story

By Kelsie Dalton

Our beautiful and all powerful love, my darling, will carry us through everything, and crown us with success and happiness in the end.

Elmer Livingston MacRae to Emma Constant Holley, February 14, 1898

Elmer Livingston MacRae and Emma Constant Holley first met in the summer of 1896 when Elmer, New York City native and budding artist, attended the Cos Cob art classes of American Impressionist John Henry Twachtman. Many of the art students and Twachtman himself would stay at the Holley family boarding house for the summer, painting and enjoying the sailing and relaxation that Cos Cob had to offer. Josephine Holley, Emma Constant’s mother, was in charge of the daily operations of the boarding house, but relied on her daughter’s help with cooking, cleaning, and looking after the guests. Elmer would recall decades later in an interview with the Greenwich Time that on his first afternoon at the Holley House, he sat out by the railroad bridge and ate a bag of penny candy for lunch – rather than join the ladies inside – out of shyness. After their first blushes of summer love, Elmer and Emma Constant would overcome family objections and go on to marry, raise twins, and support one another’s art practices for the rest of their lives. The legacy of their love story is intertwined with that of the Cos Cob Art Colony, which continued to flourish with the Holley family’s boardinghouse at its center through the 1920s.

To learn more about the friendship between Josephine Holley and John Henry Twachtman, visit our blog post about their letters here.

Elmer Livingston MacRae, ca. 1893. Archives of American Art.
A watercolor wash by Elmer Livingston MacRae of Emma Constant at work on mending in the living room of the Holley House. Greenwich Historical Society Collection, Gift of the Bush-Holley Art Group.

Between their first meeting in 1896 and when Elmer moved into the boarding house in 1899, he and Emma Constant exchanged letters almost daily, keeping each other abreast of life at home and their growing love for each other. In the letter shown below, dated March 29th, 1898, Emma Constant wrote to Elmer about one of the major obstacles they faced as a couple: Elmer’s father disapproval of the match. From the letters that survive, it appears that Elmer’s father, Charles MacRae, was hoping his son would marry into a more affluent family. The couple kept their courting a secret from Charles, until Elmer hatched a plan to convince his father that the marriage would be a good one. Elmer asked Emma Constant to write to his father, essentially stating their case. The two went back and forth about the tone and content of the letter to Charles, as is described in this March 29th letter. The letter that Emma Constant finally sent to Elmer’s father was received successfully, and began to soften Charles to the idea of their marriage.

Letter from Emma Constant Holley to Elmer Livingston MacRae, March 29, 1898. Greenwich Historical Society Collection.

Pose for you, my darling! Why I would stand on my head all day if it would help matters along any. Don’t think I consider it a hardship, sweety, it would only be a pleasure for me to help you the little I can – and just think how I would love to be in your society continually! We could stop once and a while for refreshments, couldn’t we darling? Refreshments consisting of love and kisses. Ah, darling, such happiness!

Emma Constant Holley to Elmer Livingston MacRae, March 29, 1898

This March 29th letter also records the first known instance of Elmer asking Emma Constant to pose for a portrait; she would become one of his favorite models, alongside their twin daughters Constant and Clarissa, and he created countless drawings and paintings of her during their life together (though none, as far as we know, of her standing on her head). Many of his artworks would also feature the flower arrangements of Emma Constant, herself a lauded floral designer and winner the Garden Club of America’s Fenwick Medal. Together the pair grew vegetable and flower gardens and tended the grape arbor, creating a lush paradise at the Holley House that would provide the perfect backdrop for their art and their family.

Elmer Livingston MacRae, Constant and Twins Seated at Table, 1910. Greenwich Historical Society Collection.

By Kelsie Dalton

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