Benton Museum brings women behind prominent art forward

Dr. Alexis Boylan and Dr. Emily Burns hold a dialogue with members of the UConn community about Ellen Emmet Rand and other women artists of the early 20th century. Dr. Boylan is the curator of the Rand Exhibition at the Benton Museum, and Dr. Burns is an assistant professor at Auburn University's Department of Art and Art History. (Akshara Thejaswi/The Daily Campus)

“Why don’t we talk about women artists? I have never heard of this painter, why should I care?” asked host speaker and associate professor Alexis Boylan in a devil’s advocate pitch to her guest speaker, Dr. Emily Burns.

“Great question.” Burns said. “This is a question I often ask my students at Auburn University. We have spent time dissecting this conundrum, looking into the lives of women artists. We see that they are able to gain prominence in their own lives and mediums but not in a historical context, and it is important to understand the factors that affect this.”

The focus of the talk held in the William Benton Museum of Art on Tuesday afternoon primarily inspected the life and work of late painter Ellen Emmet Rand. As one part of a four-part exhibition that opened last month titled “Work It: Ellen Emmett Rand & Women Artists of the 20th Century,” the late painter’s works can be found in the first gallery space past the permanent installation gallery. With the overwhelming majority of her work being commissioned portraits, Rand proved to be a shining example of how women in art were able to “work it” even with the odds against them.

“The exhibit that is open now is only a small part of the full collection that will be opening in 2018 in addition to the first-ever academic book on [Rand] and her remarkable life. Emily Burns and I have been working to catalog and piece together her life through archived works of art, documents, diaries and correspondence. We have to read between the lines pretty heavily but that is what we have to do,” Boylan said.

Their continued work on the book revealed many things about Rand’s life and her prowess as an artist. They found that of the portrait painters of the 19th century, she was the highest paid woman to do so in her time. Even through the Great Depression, she was able to build herself to a point where she could build her prices up where as most artists at this time were forced to slash them.

“This talk was great. I am familiar with the most famous of American women artists like O’Keeffe but I was not aware of Ellen Emmet Rand and it feels good to know more about successful women in art. It was already odd that she chose to work in portraiture for her time but even bolder that she chose to stick with it for as long as she did, even after switching to illustration,” said art history graduate student, Daphnee Yiannaki.

The life of Rand was curiously explained from the unique perspective of the two speakers to draw parallels between her work and her personal life. Rand had spent much of her early adult years supporting multiple members of her family with her commissioned paintings. She traveled to France to study under a master to then springboard back to the United States, ready to make a name for herself. Living and continuing her work in New York City, she went on to become one of the only women to paint a sitting U.S. President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


Among the varied audience of Benton Museum members, students and faculty, sat one of the living granddaughters of Rand who rose to speak at the end of the talk. “I had only two kinds of experiences in my life when it came to my grandmother’s work. The first was her personal works hung about our homes, the subjects being things like her little boys, all cutely dressed alike. The second experience was very different. When we were young and would travel to New York or Washington to various clubs like that of Harvard and Yale, we would enter these elegant rooms with red carpets leading up the stairs and all along the walls sat her portraits of the prominent men in these clubs over time…It was my late sister’s dream to have my grandmothers work in a grand show all together and Alexis has really done so much great work to make it happen and all I can say is: ’Wow.’,”


Dan Wood is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at daniel.wood@uconn.edu.