Whenever I catch myself feeling the slightest bit sorry for myself, I think about the very real and significant struggles that people with physical and developmental disabilities face in their lives every single day. Not only must they figure out how to accomplish life’s tasks in spite of their disability they must overcome the stigma society places on people who don’t look, move or talk like “normal” people do.
These folks don’t want your pity. What they do want are opportunities to prove that they belong in the same neighborhoods, workplaces and social gathering places that people without disabilities congregate. They want the chance to prove their disability doesn’t define who they are or limit what they can accomplish. This explains why it was actually an honor for me to learn about and write about an individual who just might be the most accomplished artist in the history of Amsterdam. Her name was Mary Van der Veer and she was a talented enough painter to have studied under Whistler in Paris and have her canvased creations win medals and be chosen for expositions and exhibits all around the country and the world. But what could never be seen when you looked at one of her beautiful landscapes or portraits was the woman with deformed hands and back, whose atrophied legs were paralyzed by a severe case of infantile paralysis when she was just three years old.
Mary Van der Veer was born on a farm just outside of Fort Hunter on September 9, 1865. It was there that she was struck with crippling polio as a very young child. Her miraculous journey from a severely disabled toddler to an incredibly gifted artist probably would not have been possible without her amazing parents. She was the daughter of John and Jennie Van Evera Van der Veer. Her dad went into the residential construction business. He built several homes in Amsterdam’s Market Hill neighborhood and moved his family into one of them, on Lincoln Avenue.
Van der Veer’s parents never coddled their daughter and if they had tried to, something tells me little Mary would have told them to cut it out. She grew up into a bold, unafraid young woman with an incredible passion for art, all of which enabled her to overcome her handicap with incredible determination and amazing effort to become a highly skilled artist. So skilled, that she was accepted to study at the prestigious Academy of Design in New York City and one of her paintings was selected for exhibition at the 1893 Worlds Fair in Chicago.
She then went to Europe a first time to study with the American artist James Whistler, who chose a Van der Veer self-portrait for a 1900 exhibit he put on for his students. Back in America, she continued her studies at the Philadelphia Art School where fifty of her paintings were featured in a one-woman exhibit in 1904. That same year, one of her paintings was awarded a bronze medal at the St. Louis Exposition.
In a 2007 essay about Van der Veer, Amsterdam, NY-born historian Bob Cudmore described a woman who “smoked cigarettes, bobbed her hair and travelled in wheel chairs and on crutches.” She was also known to curse pretty liberally.
Just before World War I, her father disassembled a barn up on Amsterdam’s Market Hill and reassembled it into a charming combination home and studio for Van der Veer that still stands on today’s Arnold Avenue. The finished home was featured in a “House Beautiful” magazine pictorial in 1915.
After the war Van Der Veer returned to Europe where she focused on painting landscapes in Holland, her family’s ancestral home. When she came back home to Amsterdam, she created some of her most memorable works associated with this area, including local landscapes and portraits of area notables, like Recorder Publisher William Kline and Annie Allen Trapnell, the founder of Amsterdam’s Century Club. A collection of her work can now be viewed at the Walter Elwood Museum at 100 Church Street in Amsterdam.
Miss Van der Veer was a life long member of Amsterdam’s Second Presbyterian Church. She had one sister, who married Amsterdam businessman James Smeallie. Mary Van der Veer passed away suddenly at the age of 79 in May of 1945.