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New York artist Juliet Thompson’s paintings graced the White House and the Smithsonian—but she lived for a much higher purpose.
She was known for her compelling pastel portraits of politicians and artists—but the paintings she loved most portrayed members of the Baha’i holy family.
Welcome to Uplifting the World of Being, a new series of articles where we’ll learn about Baha’is who left their mark on history through their creative and artistic pursuits:
Arts, crafts and sciences uplift the world of being, and are conducive to its exaltation. Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent. – Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 26.
Juliet Thompson was a fearless teacher of the Baha’i Faith, known for her courage and staunch belief in Baha’u’llah’s unifying vision for the humanity, during some of the darkest times in history. At the turn of the century she mingled with all ranks of society, offering her home in New York City as a meeting place and refuge, all while fighting tirelessly for the emancipation of women and an end to the war. Her close bond with Abdu’l-Baha, his fatherly love, encouragement, and sometimes chastisement, has been immortalized in The Diary of Juliet Thompson, a touching, first-person emotional portrayal of her deep love for her Faith. This is her story.
Juliet Thompson was born on September 23, 1873, in New York City. She was raised in Washington D.C. by a prominent family. From a young age, Juliet was gifted with an innate talent for painting, so her parents sent her to study at the Corcoran Art School in Washington. At the age of 12, her father, Ambrose W. Thompson passed away, taking his wealth and rank with him, leaving Juliet, her mother and brother, with little to no fortune.
As a result Juliet financially supported her mother and brother as a working artist. Fortunately for Juliet, she was already making money as a portrait painter, hosting her first public exhibit of portraits at the Knoedler’s gallery in New York, and taking on commissions such as a painted centerpiece for a private and prestigious gentlemen’s club in D.C. called the Cosmos Club in 1897.
As she had become an active member of the D.C. artistic community, a prominent American portrait artist, Alice Pike Barney, invited Juliet to France to exhibit her work and study as her apprentice in 1898. Accompanied by her mother and brother, Juliet was quickly introduced to the daughter of Alice and her daughter’s friend upon arrival in Paris. Their names were Laura Dreyfus-Barney, a prominent Baha’i and writer, and May Bolles—the first Baha’i on the European continent and future wife of renowned Canadian architect Sutherland Maxwell.
Juliet quickly fell in love with the teachings of the Baha’i Faith, and became one of the first group of Baha’i’s in Paris. Aided by the presence and nurturing enthusiasm of May Bolles, Thomas Breakwell (the first English Baha’i) and influence of Mirza Abu’l-Fadl, a Baha’i scholar whom Abdu’l-Baha had sent to France, Juliet confirmed her faith and sincere love for Baha’u’llah and his message in 1901. Following her acceptance of the Baha’i Faith in Paris, Juliet eventually moved to New York City and took up residence with another artist named Daisy Pumpelly Smyth. Together they lived in a Greenwich Village brownstone on 48 West Tenth Street, which became the central hub in New York City for regular Baha’i meetings, including a regular Friday information gathering:
It behoveth the friends in whatever land they be, to gather together in meetings, and therein to speak wisely and with eloquence, and to read the verses of God; for it is God’s Words that kindle love’s fire and set it ablaze. – Baha’u’llah, from unpublished tablet.
Juliet made her first pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1908, a year after Abdu’l-Baha was released from the prison city of Akka. Exhilarated and deeply inspired by her encounter with Abdu’l-Baha, she travelled to France and Switzerland in the summer of 1911, to once again enjoy the honourable presence of Abdu’l-Baha, and to invite him to America. During her time with Abdu’l-Baha in the Holy Land and Europe, she would record her conversations with Baha’is, talks by Abdu’l-Baha, and personal encounters with Him in her diary, which would later become parts of a beloved publication titled ‘The Diary of Juliet Thompson’:
He was sitting on the divan at the end nearest the door, and when I entered, He beckoned me to His side. As I passed Him to take my seat I wanted to kneel at his knees–my own knees almost drew me down. But, fearing to be insincere, I would not yield. He took my hand in His—His so mysterious Hand—so delicately made, so steely strong, currents of life streaming from it.
“Are you well? Are you happy?”
But my lips seemed to be locked. I was helpless to open them.
“Speak—speak to Me!” He said in English.
A sacred passion had been growing in my heart: my heart was almost breaking with it. – Juliet Thompson recounting her first meeting with Abdu’l-Baha, The Diary of Juliet Thompson, Chapter 2.