Adah M. Awtrey: Portrait of a Life of Mixed Blessings

Throughout the afternoon and evening of June 15, 1916, hundreds of people attended a reception to celebrate the newly constructed home of Fuller and Ida Callaway and to celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. As guests arrived, they observed the fine details of the library and a newly painted portrait of Fuller E. Callaway Sr., placed above the fireplace. It was done by one of the finest artists LaGrange would call its own, Adah Mendenhall Awtrey. Adah was one of several prominent women asked to serve as hostess during that open house, and she received many compliments on the portrait.

Born in Missouri, November 30, 1863, Mary Adah Mendenhall moved with her parents, Willard and Mary Mendenhall, to Houston,Texas in 1870. She received her education at Southern Female College, the Baptist college in LaGrange, graduating in 1882. Adah also studied art in Philadelphia (under P. Moran and S. J. Ferris), New York and Boston. She married Philip Greene Awtrey on February 10, 1887 in Houston, Texas, after which they settled in his hometown, LaGrange. She taught art at her Alma Mater, ultimately becoming head of the art department in 1889. Adah also taught private lessons and instructed Leila Dunson Williams, who also became a well-known artist and portrait painter. Awtrey taught until Southern Female College closed in 1919.

Following the success of the portrait of Fuller Sr., she did several other portraits of Callaway family members including a portrait of Fuller’s mother, Sarah Jane Howard Callaway, which was painted from a photograph. She also painted portraits of Ida Cason Callaway, Francis Pope Callaway and Alexander Toombs Cason (Ida’s father). In addition to these Callaway family portraits, Adah did other paintings, which were commissioned by or sold to various families in and beyond LaGrange. She did a portrait of W. F. Jones of Elberton, Georgia in 1888 and one of her non-portrait works, “Going Fishing,” is owned by Troup County Archives.

The Awtreys provided a home for various relatives and friends in their antebellum home at 1105 Vernon Street, which they called the “Awtrey Arms.” One significant relative they took in was Adah’s nephew, V. K. Mendenhall, who became an admiral in the United States Navy. She was a dedicated member of First Baptist Church where a Sunday school class was named in her honor. Adah M. Awtrey’s life was not always happy.  Both of her children died in infancy. Her husband, Philip, died in 1925 and Adah had to sell their grand house on Vernon Street near the end of the Great Depression in 1939. She moved into a small house on North Lewis Street until 1948 but she was also forced to sell that house for financial reasons. She then moved into an apartment in the old Victorian home (still standing in 2008) on the corner of Ben Hill Street and West Haralson Street. Two years later, again most likely for financial reasons, she moved into a room in the Southwest LaGrange Teachers’ Home  at the age of eighty-seven. She died two years later, on April 8, 1952, in her eighty-ninth year.

It seems tragic that the life of such a well-educated, cultured lady, arguably one of LaGrange’s finest artists and portrait painters, ended rather obscurely. Adah Mendenhall Awtrey was a very accomplished painter. Her works, wherever they can be found, are treasures.