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University’s Theora Hamblett Collection Grows

By Bill Dabney

University of Mississippi

Mary Louise Rosenbush (right) has donated two pieces, including an original painting, to the University of Mississippi Foundation’s collection of Theora Hamblett art. Accepting on behalf of the foundation is Anna Langley, UMF vice president. The university houses the world’s largest collection of Hamblett’s artworks. Photo by Bill Dabney/UM Foundation

The University of Mississippi owns the world’s largest collection of paintings by renowned artist Theora Hamblett, and thanks to the generosity of 1954 alumna Mary Louise Rosenbush, that collection just got a little larger.

Rosenbush recently donated two pieces connected to Hamblett to the University of Mississippi Foundation, saying she believes her “Aunt Theora” would want them at Ole Miss, in close proximity to the others. Rosenbush addresses Hamblett affectionately as “aunt,” though the two actually were second cousins.

One is an original painting Hamblett gave to Rosenbush’s father, Albert Burns “B” Bell, depicting him enjoying one his favorite pastimes. 

“Daddy liked to fish at Sardis Dam in Sardis, Mississippi,” the donor said. “Aunt Theora painted it for him and gave it to him when we visited her.”

The second piece, a limited-edition print of Hamblett’s well-known “Children and Chickens,” belonged to Rosenbush and her husband, Bert, longtime owner of Rosenbush Furniture Co. in Demopolis, Alabama, the state’s oldest family-owned furniture store. 

“Aunt Theora wanted me to paint,” Rosenbush recalled. “‘Start with trees!’ she would say. Then she told me this: ‘You have the gift, my child. Use it, but only to God’s glory.’ 

“She said I had many God-given talents – art, music, faith, hope, love – creative ability.”

Responding to Hamblett’s encouragement, she dabbled in painting, but her most-used talent continues to be playing piano. At age 90, she often regales friends with her music whenever she has an opportunity. 

After graduating from Ole Miss with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, Rosenbush – then Mary Louise Bell, of Marks – earned a master’s degree in religious education with an emphasis on student affairs, guidance and counseling from Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. 

She taught public school in Mississippi and Texas before being hired as director of women’s housing at the University of Alabama in 1966. She was soon promoted to director of residence halls and then, in 1969, to assistant dean for student development.

“I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Mrs. Rosenbush and, on behalf of the UM Foundation, I’d like to express how grateful we are for her gifts,” said Anna Langley, vice president of the UM Foundation. “Theora Hamblett’s art is special to us, and we are honored to be able to give it a perpetual home here at the University of Mississippi.” 

Hamblett died in her sleep at her Oxford home on March 6, 1977. Her paintings of rural landscapes and religious revelations hang in esteemed galleries worldwide, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art as well as in U.S. embassies and the homes of such notables as former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, actor Sir Alec Guinness and former Ole Miss Rebel and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning.

She also wrote two books that included her artwork: “Paintings” (University Press of Mississippi, 1975) and the self-published “Dreams and Visions.”

Besides a small collection at Memory House, home of the UM Foundation, hundreds of Hamblett’s paintings and drawings are preserved at the University of Mississippi Museum. Her work has been offered at auction multiple times, with realized prices ranging from $1,500 to more than $67,000, depending on the size and medium of the artwork.


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