Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, January 29th, 1871. She was the youngest daughter of Cyrus W. and Anna H. Ruggles.
Theo had two older siblings, a sister named Anna and a brother named Horace. Unfortunately, not much seems to be known about the older Ruggles children, but Theo certainly made an impact on the world around her.
From an early age, Theo exhibited artistic talent. This was something that Mrs. Ruggles recognized and felt it was important to try and nurture, so that her daughter could develop as an artist.
Initially, Theo’s mother tried to enroll her daughter in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, but Theo was turned away. There are conflicting stories about why this happened to Theo. The reasons were either because of her gender, at a time when many women were still not necessarily perusing higher education OR the reason was because of her age. Regardless of the reasons, Mrs. Ruggles continued to attempt to get her daughter into several other schools, all of which turned her away. However, they were finally advised by a school director to find a tutor for Theo and sent them in the direction of an English sculptor named Henry Hudson Kitson.
Theo flourished under Kitson’s tutelage, starting in 1886. They were soon living in France where Theo made quite a name for herself as an artist and a woman. In 1888, at the tender age of 19 years old, she won honorable mention at the Salon des Artistes Francais, making her the youngest woman, and the first American, to ever receive the award. She also received honorable mention at the Paris Exhibition of 1889. While in France, Theo also studied under Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, an accomplished French painter.
Though Theo’s time in France was beneficial, she soon returned to the United States. It was in Boston, in 1893, when Theo married Henry Kitson, in what was described as “the social event of the season.”
When Theo returned to the United States, she became quite a social celebrity because of her accomplishments in France. She would be asked to comment on everything from the state of American art to men’s fashions, and in 1895 she was the first woman to be admitted to the National Sculpture Society. In 1904, Theo was also awarded the bronze medal at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
Upon marrying Henry Kitson, Theo and her husband lived in Framingham, Massachusetts, and later to Sherborn, while maintaining studios in Boston. During this period, Theo and her husband had four children. A daughter named Dorothy was born to the couple in 1894, a son John in 1896, a son Eugene in 1897, and a daughter Theo in 1894. An important fact to note here is that though there are birth records indicating four children, many sources, including Kitson’s obituary indicate she only had three children. Often times this indicates that a child died either in childbirth, or at least before being able to reach adult hood.
It was in 1903 when Theo’s first monument in Vicksburg was dedicated. The Massachusetts memorial, which was dedicated in 1903, was a labor of love for Theo and it was important for her to show just an average soldier on the monument, a man who could be the representation of anyone. The statue is standing upon a massive boulder, weighing 12 tons that Theo specifically requested be shipped in from the quarries in Quincy, Massachusetts; little slice of Massachusetts, right in Vicksburg. Kitson saw her work as an opportunity to promote healing and reconciliation, and when asked to reveal her monument at the 1903 dedication, she reported requested a southern woman also be present to help her. That woman was named Alice Cole, a daughter of a Confederate veteran.
Theo and her husband would separate in 1909, but despite the separation, the two were still able to collaborate over the next 17 years on several contributions to Vicksburg, including the 1911 equestrian statue of the “standard Bearer” at the Iowa Memorial.
Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson’s legacy lives on in her masterpieces at Vicksburg National Military Park. With seventy-three sculptures, she is the most prolifically represented artist in the park. Her statue “The Volunteer” also carries the honor of being the first state monument to be place in the park.
Following her separation from her husband, Theo lived in Farmington, Massachusetts where she maintained a studio until her death in October of 1932, following an operation she had performed at a Boston hospital.
In the 61 years that she was alive, and the 46 years that she was actively creating art, Theo left behind numerous contributions to both history and the art world. Her work can be seen all over the country including, but not limited to a monument in Boston Public Garden’s to Revolutionary War hero Tadeusz Kościuszko. Her work The Hiker is a monument to the soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, and the Boxer Rebellion. There are around 50 versions of this work on display throughout the United States. Theo also sculpted the Civil War monument of Mother Bickerdyke in front of the Galesburg, Illinois courthouse, the monument to the 124th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment monument in Goshen, New York, and Theo also sculpted the medallions depicting General Sherman’s corps commanders, who served under him in the Civil War, on the statue of Sherman in Washington DC.
Theo Kitson was a prolific sculptor and artist, who was incredibly accomplished for her gender in a world where women were still struggling to make a place for themselves. As a result of her influence and contributions to history, Theo is highlighted on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, on the Back Bay East portion of the walking trail. However her greatest contributions and most numerous would be at Vicksburg National Military park, in the form of various statues, busts, and reliefs.
Following is a list of the monuments, busts, and relief portraits created by Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson at Vicksburg National Military Park.