Willie Betty Newman, a key figure in the state's art community at the turn of the century, was born on the Benjamin Rucker plantation near Murfreesboro, the daughter of Colonel William Francis Betty and Sophie Rucker Betty. She attended Soule College in Murfreesboro and Greenwood Seminary in Lebanon before studying art at the Cincinnati Art School under T. S. Noble. In 1881 she married J. Warren Newman, but they separated soon afterward, and she never spoke of him again.
For twelve years she studied art in Paris, mostly at the Julian Academy, under masters who included William Adolphe Bouguereau, Jean Paul Laurens, Robert Fleury, and Benjamin Constance. She specialized in genre scenes of French peasant life. A pervasive spiritual quality characterizes her work and is exemplified by Passing of the Holy Bread, now at the Centennial Club, and En Penitence, now at Cheekwood Museum of Art. She exhibited at the Paris Salon from 1893 to 1898, and again in 1900. She received honorable mention and a certificate from the French government for her portrait of Miss Fanny Alice Gowdy, daughter of the American Consul in Paris.
When Newman returned to Nashville, she maintained a portrait studio in the Vauxhall Apartments. Newman portrayed such prominent Nashvillians as John Trotwood Moore, Joel Creek, Governor James Frazier, Mrs. James C. Bradford, James E. Caldwell, and Oscar F. Noel. She was commissioned to paint a portrait of John Sherman, vice president under William Howard Taft, but her work was rejected as too large, and she forfeited the $4,500 fee. Congress commissioned her to do posthumous portraits of James K. Polk and John C. Bell. The Centennial Club commissioned a portrait of Mrs. Elizabeth Rhodes Eakins. The Nashville Museum of Art awarded Newman the Parthenon medal, its highest honor. She died in Nashville on February 6, 1935.