Dressed in her signature fedora, thick round glasses and blue smock, Ellen Emmet Rand braved the world and painted portraits of some very powerful people, Benton Museum docent Judy McChesney said as a small group admired Rand’s self-portrait during the “Art in Small Bites” talk this week. According to McChesney, Rand had a unique gift for portraiture, but because of her circumstances, the artist also had to play the role of her own publicist, accountant and fee collector.
At only 16 years old, Rand’s family fell into dire financial straits and she took it upon herself to help support her family. The young Rand began working as an artist illustrating men’s and women’s fashions for magazines such as “Vogue” and “Harper’s Bazaar.” Her seriousness about doing so kept the family afloat, and is one of the characteristics that one can find in her self-portrait.
“She wants to be seen as a serious person,” McChesney said of Rand’s depiction of herself in “Self-Portrait,” a work that Rand submitted as part of an application to the National Academy of Design.
Rand’s works fall into two main categories: portraits of her relatives and portraits of those outside of her family. In her family portraits, Rand often focused on perfecting a single detail, such as the accuracy of her younger stepbrother’s face in “Boy with Bow.” Rand then typically painted the background and other aspects of her subject in a more impressionistic, less crisp style.
On the other hand, Rand was quite detailed in her portrayal of those outside of her family. Features such as hands and clothing were finely captured by her commissioned brushstrokes.
In all her portraits, though, Rand focused on bringing her subjects to life. For example, “Jean Sargent,” a portrait of a college girl in a white gown, captures the subject’s physical form while also depicting her boredom during the sitting. The portrait of Charles Lewis Beach, the fourth president of the University of Connecticut, depicts his kind nature and dignified academic position.
“I get the impression he could stand right up and shake your hand,” McChesney said. She noted how details like his “engaging face” and “attentive eyes” added to the portrayal of Beach’s caring personality.
While Rand painted more than 800 portraits in her lifetime, some of her best known works treat men in powerful positions. The portraitist captured President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (whose portrait has since gone missing), Frederick MacMonnies (a famous sculptor) and Augustus Saint-Gaudens (also a famous sculptor). The portrait of Augustus Saint-Gaudens is now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while the Benton retains that of Frederick MacMonnies.
McChesney explained how Rand’s early work as a fashion illustrator taught her the importance of clothing in portraying a subject. She mentioned how Rand would even occasionally go through her subjects’ closets to pick out what they should wear for a portrait. Rand understood how her subjects wished to be perceived and balanced their desires with her abilities as a portraitist and the need to accurately portray her subject.
Rand died in 1941, and her family put all of her works into a barn on their land. Her paintings remained there until 1967, when her three sons decided to donate the collection to Yale, which refused to take them unless they were refurbished. Opting to forgo the expensive process of renewing Rand’s many works, the sons instead donated them to the Benton Museum, which gladly accepted them.
Because portraiture began to fall out of favor with the advent of photography, and because no one in Rand’s family continued to promote her work after her death, Rand remains “relatively unknown,” according to McChesney. By exhibiting Rand’s work in “The Business of Bodies,” the Benton hopes to shed some light on the life and work of this talented portraitist.
Stephanie Santillo is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.