Laura Sutton Bruce (1853 – 1904), Lexington artist, suffragist and philanthropist

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Laura Sutton Bruce was born on August 16, 1853, in Lexington, Kentucky. She was the third of seven daughters of Elizabeth T. Colesberry and William W. Bruce. Her father was a wealthy man whose fortune came from hemp and bagging manufacturing, having partnered for some years with the Lexington millionaire Benjamin F. Gratz. W.W. Bruce’s social and political influence included that of two of his brothers: Benjamin Gratz Bruce who established the Live Stock Record in Lexington and compiled the first two volumes of the American Stud Book; and, Saunders Dewees Bruce who also bred thoroughbred horses and founded the popular journal Turf, Field and Farm. As was common for Southern belles in the day, their friend, thoroughbred owner and breeder James Shy, named a mare after her. Laura Bruce’s mother Elizabeth was prominent in social circles as well as with her volunteer work for the Episcopal Christ Church. Laura was named after her mother’s ancestor, William Sutton, whose military service qualified her for the Daughters of the American Revolution. Laura Sutton Bruce lived at home with her parents at 107 Second Street until she began to travel in her late twenties: she applied for a passport in 1886. Her passport application described her at 28 years of age, relatively tall at 5 ½ feet tall, with hazel eyes, brown hair and a small nose with an oval face and fair complexion.

According to a local paper, W.W. Bruce paid a nickel to his daughter for every portrait she would draw and that her studio in her family home was filled with life-sized sketches. Laura Bruce studied art, first in Lexington with Anna Totten then under an artist by the name of Martin in Cincinnati – perhaps Laura Martin who was in the Art Department of the Young Ladies’ Institute in Granville in 1884. Sometime in the 1880s she painted an oil portrait of her friend Laura Clay – this depiction of the suffragist Clay in her thirties was handed down to the Bennett family and hangs now in White Hall in Madison County.

Laura Bruce traveled to Madrid then Dresden to live with relatives and study art there. She moved on to study in Rome, Florence, Berlin and Paris where finally she stayed for several years. Her sister Julia “Lilla” Jacobs joined her in February 1890, and in 1892 another sister, Fannie Bruce Loughridge, wrote to the Kentucky [Lexington Daily] Leader of her visit with Laura Bruce to Gibraltar. The Leader announced in 1891 that she had finally returned home after five years in Europe. The editor described her: “Miss Bruce is a tall, queenly woman with an expressive, intellectual countenance. She converses fluently in English, French and German, is an accomplished artist, and a daughter of whom Lexington is justly proud.” She contributed to suffragist Eugenia Dunlap Potts' journal The Illustrated Kentuckian in 1892, displayed her painting “The Four-Leaf Clover” at the 1895 World’s Fair in Atlanta, and continued to travel back and forth to France where she was elected President of the American Woman’s Art Association of Paris. She had several pictures exhibited in Paris salons. In 1899 for example, the Champs Elysee Salon in Paris accepted two of her watercolors: a portrait of Fannie Carrier (her niece) and a study of a little girl.

In December 1894, the Woman’s Club of Central Kentucky formally incorporated, and the founding president, Nannie Scovall, appointed Laura Bruce as the chair of the Art Department. She resigned the next year as she was still traveling to Paris for her art, but by 1900 Laura Bruce began her involvement in the suffrage movement. The 1900 census counted her living with the family of her cousin Charlotte Bruce Davis on North Mill Street in Lexington, and she described to the census-taker her occupation as “capitalist.” She was elected president of the Fayette Equal Rights Association, and in February 1900 she attended the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) convention in Washington D.C. then in May 1901 she traveled with Laura Clay and Sallie Clay Bennett to Minneapolis for the NAWSA convention where she represented Kentucky on the Resolutions Committee. She spent the winter of 1901-1902 in California, probably to offset her health problems that had begun to flare up. She vacationed and painted in New Hampshire in the fall of 1902, and then went to Washington D.C. to stay with her sister, Lizzie Bruce Chew, that winter.

She continued to serve as an officer for FERA in 1903, and her portrait of Laura Clay was featured that summer at the Woman's Council tent organized by the Fayette Equal Rights Association for a Chautauqua program in Lexington. But Laura Bruce must not have been feeling well, since she wrote her will in October of that year. She suffered from what was diagnosed then as Bright’s Disease, a problem with the kidneys sometimes called nephritis that we know now typically followed upon an untreatable case of strep throat. She must have been fighting the disease successfully for several months since she attended the Kentucky Equal Rights Association convention in November 1903 where she was elected as a delegate to the 1904 NAWSA convention in Washington D.C. She also was elected vice-president of the Daughters of the American Revolution of Kentucky (with Laura Clay as president) in March 1904, and she had a picture accepted for display in the Kentucky building at the St. Louis World Fair.

Renal failure, for which there was no treatment in the early 1900s, put her in the hospital in June 1904 where she died of “uraemic poisoning” on June 22nd. Her funeral was held at Christ Church Episcopal, and she is buried at the Lexington Cemetery in Section D, Lot 109 next to her parents and a baby sister.

Bruce never married, and in her will she had bequeathed some of her estate, enough to amount to $5,000, to the “National Woman Suffrage Association” and for Laura Clay to use as she saw fit for the furthering of the woman suffrage movement. She did not mention her widowed mother in her will (see the transcription of the will here), but Elizabeth Bruce sued to reclaim her daughter’s estate. She first wrote to Laura Clay, claiming that her husband had stipulated that whenever one of the children died, the remaining property should be divided among the living siblings – and that Laura was always eager to please her father. She later then claimed in her suit that the NWSA had been dissolved in 1890 with the creation of the NAWSA, so there was no way to give them the funds stipulated in the will. Harriet Taylor Upton of NAWSA wrote regularly to Laura Clay’s lawyer, Charles Kerr, trying to explain how the national organizations worked and that Laura Bruce had been a member up to the time of her death.

Clay, president of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, finally won the suit in 1906. She carefully held the gift of real estate and stocks in a special fund and, according to historian Paul F. Fuller, Clay was able to invest the gift in a way that brought in additional revenues. She rented out Bruce's “cottage” at 718 North Broadway in Lexington and with the rent from that house along with dividends and interest from other investments, Clay was able to pass along to the NAWSA (and League of Women Voters after 1920) nearly $9,000 in total. After 1925, the remaining investments (worth nearly $2,000) were given to the Christ Church (Episcopal) in Lexington for the Laura Sutton Bruce Memorial Fund that would offset the hospital expenses of those unable to pay.

*** Resources ***

  • Artists in Ohio, 1787-1900: A Biographical Dictionary. Mary Sayre Haverstock, Jeannette Mahoney Vance, and Brian L. Meggitt, eds. (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2000): 577.
  • E.T. Bruce to Laura Clay, August 3, 1904, Laura Clay Papers, Box 2, Folder 30. Special Collections Research Center, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Ky. (hereafter “SCRC, UK”).
  • “Fine Arts from Kentucky to Be Shown at World’s Fair,” Courier-Journal [Louisville, Ky.] (March 27, 1904): 12.
  • Fuller, Paul E. Laura Clay and the Woman's Rights Movement (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1975): 95-96.
  • Harriet Taylor Upton to Charles Kerr, June 1, 1905, Linda Neville Papers, Box 27, Folder 6. SCRC, UK.
  • The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. V 1900-1920. Ida Husted Harper, ed. (New York: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922): 127. Available via HathiTrust at
  • “The Historical Room,” The Kentucky [Lexington Daily] Leader (January 11, 1895): 5.
  • “The Illustrated Kentuckian” advertisement,” The Kentucky Chautauqua Detailed Illustrated Program (1892): 19. Available online via the Lexington Public Library at
  • “In her will…” Daily Public Ledger [Maysville, Ky.] (June 29, 1904): 1. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. (Hereafter “Chronicling Am”) Available online at
  • “Last Will,” The Kentucky [Lexington Daily] Leader (June 27, 1904): 1 “Laura Bruce [thoroughbred],” The New York Herald (November 21, 1897). Chronicling Am. Available online at
  • Laura Bruce, Certificate of Death No. 7777, Kentucky Birth, Marriage and Death Records – Microfilm (1852-1910). Microfilm rolls #994027-994058. Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, Kentucky. Accessed via
  • Laura Sutton Bruce, Last Will and Testament, Probate Place: Fayette, Kentucky; Written: October 21, 1903; Probate Date: June 27, 1904; County Court (Fayette County); Kentucky, Wills and Probate Records, 1774-1989. Accessed via
  • Laura S. Bruce, U.S. Passport Application (April 24, 1886), National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Roll #: 281; Volume #: Roll 281 - 01 Apr 1886-30 Apr 1886. Accessed via
  • “Miss Laura Bruce Dies,” Courier-Journal [Louisville, Ky.] (June 23, 1904): 5.
  • “Miss Laura Bruce is at home again after five years….” Kentucky [Lexington Daily] Leader (August 2, 1891): 2.
  • “Miss Laura Bruce is at Paris, France…” Kentucky [Lexington Daily] Leader (October 2, 1892): 3.
  • “Miss Bruce’s Pictures,” Courier-Journal [Louisville, Ky.] (January 4, 1903): 15.
  • “Miss Laura Sutton Bruce. 30315,” Lineage Book National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Vol. 31, 1900. Compiled by Sarah Hall Johnson. (Washington D.C.: Daughters of the American Revolution, 1910): 109.
  • Catherine Waugh McCulloch to Miss Clay, April, 1905, Laura Clay Papers, Box 2, Folder 30. SCRC, UK.
  • "Mrs. Elizabeth Bruce Dies at Ripe Old Age," Lexington [Ky.] Herald (March 21, 1911): 1.
  • “Notes and Personals,” Los Angeles Times (January 7, 1902): 11.
  • “Olla Podrida,” Morning [Lexington, Ky.] Herald (December 8, 1897): 6.
  • “Off for Europe,” Kentucky [Lexington Daily] Leader (February 4, 1890): 4.
  • “Officers are Elected,” Courier-Journal (March 30, 1904): 2.
  • "Presenting the Reports. The Woman Suffragists Hard at Work in Convention. Minneapolis, May 31." The [Washington D.C.] Times (June 1, 1901): 3. Chronicling Am. Available online:
  • “Signal indeed is the honor conferred…” Morning [Lexington, Ky.] Herald (April 18, 1899): 6.
  • “Social Circles…Sketches of Miss Anna Totten and Miss Laura Bruce…” Kentucky [Lexington Daily] Leader (December 3, 1893): 4.
  • “State Personals,” Courier-Journal [Louisville, Ky.] (March 13, 1896): 4.
  • Suit, Executor Laura S. Bruce v. Elizabeth T. Bruce, Linda Neville Papers, Box 27, Folder 6. SCRC, UK.
  • “Tent for Woman’s Council at Lexington Chautauqua in 1903 Organized by FERA,” June 30, 1903 to July 10, 1903 entry on KWSP Timeline, H-Kentucky network,
  • "Thursday Afternoon," Minutes of the Fourteenth Annual Convention of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association Held at Guild Hall, Trinity Episcopal Church, Covington, Ky., November 11-12, 1903 (Newport, KY: Davies Print): 7.
  • “Tomorrow’s Session,” Washington [D.C.] Times (February 11, 1900): 7.
  • “Will Contest at Lexington Involves Fine Points. The Testatrix’s Mother is Fighting for $5,000 Trust Fund,” Courier-Journal [Louisville, Ky.] (June 12, 1905): 2.
  • “Will Filed for Probate,” Courier-Journal [Louisville, Ky.] (June 28, 1904): 2.
  • William Kerr to Miss Clay, May 21, 1906, Laura Clay Papers, Box 2, Folder 37. SCRC, UK.
  • “Women Formally Inaugurate their Club Work,” Kentucky [Lexington Daily] Leader (December 20, 1894): 6.

Note: This post supports the collection of biosketches of Kentucky suffragists for the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Project. See the full list of biosketches here.