One of the greatest American artists you’ve probably never heard of

Spectators explore the new Ellen Emmet Rand Exhibition in the Benton Museum of Art. The opening reception was a success including refreshments, live music and incredible art for viewers. (Photo by Julie Spillane/The Daily Campus)

Thursday night, the William Benton Museum of Art unveiled its newest exhibition, “The Business of Bodies: Ellen Emmet Rand (1875-1941) and the Persuasion of Portraiture.” While Rand’s name is unfamiliar to audiences today, her story is important to the history of art in this country.

“I wanted to work on an artist that there hadn’t been a lot written about or talked about and the more I found out about her life, the more honestly shocked I was that there wasn’t more information and she really hadn’t had, I thought, the kind of exposure and dialogue that she should,” Alexis Boylan, the curator of the exhibit and a University of Connecticut American Studies professor, said of her reasoning for highlighting Rand’s work.

Upon entering, viewers are met with two large paintings, “Mrs. Mary Potter” (1940), which portrays a young woman in a colorful striped dress lounging on a couch and staring off contentedly past the viewer, and “Self Portrait” (1927) which presents the artist herself. Rand appears unassuming, a seemingly normal woman in a plain blue smock with a yellow hat. Her expression is blank and the background is simple. Though it appears we are looking at someone of little renown, that is hardly the case.

Rand started out as an illustrator for “Vogue Magazine,” “Harper’s Bazaar” and “Harper’s Weekly,” eventually finding fame as a portrait painter. Rand’s talents brought in rich and powerful clientele, including three U.S. Secretaries of State, lawyers, scientists and various men and women of the upper class.

The most noteworthy of her subjects was the thirty-second President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Rand was hired to paint Roosevelt’s official presidential portrait in 1933, making her the first woman in history to be given that honor. Unfortunately, the honor was not hers for long. After Roosevelt’s death, the painting was ordered to be moved to Roosevelt’s Hyde Park home where it would become part of the FDR Library. It was then replaced by a different portrait in Washington, making it no longer the “official” presidential portrait. Then, in 2004, the painting was reported missing, most likely stolen or accidentally destroyed.

When asked how gender may have played into the treatment of Rand involving the portrait, Boyland said, “I’ll turn the question around and ask, ‘What other paintings by male artists were removed from collections and were then subsequently lost?’ The answer to that is none. I think that you can look at this from a number of ways, but the bottom line is the painting and the artist were not given the kind of respect that they deserved.”

A common theme through the exhibition was how Rand’s place as a female artist affected her career. While successful during her life, Rand continually faced the perception that, as Boyland said, “women artists were always following and not leading the dialogue about art.”

Two of Rand’s subjects are of special note due to their connection to this university. “Charles Lewis Beach” (1925) was the fourth president of UConn from 1908 to 1928 (and the namesake of Beach Hall). According to the gallery, he began collecting the art that would later form the foundation of the Benton museum’s collection. In his portrait, Beach is shown as a respectable, dapper older man in a gray three-piece suit, a slight smile and eyebrow raise directed at the viewer.

The next is “John H. Trumbull” (1926), the governor of Connecticut from 1925 to 1931. Trumbull lost the 1932 election to Wilbur Cross, whom the UConn building is named after. Rand portrayed him as a stern, serious man, clearly focused on work as indicated by the paper he holds and books by his side. Judging by his expression, Trumbull seems to be annoyed that he is being “disturbed” from his business. Whether these characterizations are accurate is debatable, especially when considering the exhibition’s subtitle, “The Persuasion of Portraiture.”

Apart from the paintings, the exhibition had a variety of other interesting materials. On display were Rand’s diaries, photographs and letters which had been donated to the university by the Rand family. There were also quite a few authentic period costumes from UConn’s Historical Costume and Textile Collection. These pieces of clothing were shown alongside the paintings to help viewers obtain a greater understanding of the time period being portrayed through Rand’s artwork. The opening also featured a performance by The Survivors Swing Band, which added energy and a further sense of period immersion.

This exhibition has a lot to offer UConn students. First of all, the art itself is magnificent, appearing blotchy in many spots yet strangely lifelike. Each face has personality and character that suggests lived experience. There is also much in the way students can reflect on their own lives through these paintings. Boylan compared concerns of the modern “selfie age” to the concerns of those who Rand painted, saying, “[...] It’s really the same conversation, which is how do we present ourselves; how do we invent ourselves; how do we want to be remembered; how to we insert ourselves into historical dialogue; how do we get seen by other people? I think these are fascinating and timeless questions, and I think students can get a new view of those answers.”


Evan Burns is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at evan.burns@uconn.edu.