Ellen Emmet Rand Stands Out: An artist who doesn’t fit the narrative finds her place in history

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Alexis Boylan discusses the work of Emmet Rand(1875-1941) in relation to issues of race and gender at William Benton Museum of Art on Wednesday. Alexis L. Boylan is Associate Director of the Humanities Institute, and has a joint appointment with Art and Art History and the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut. (Congyang An/The Daily Campus)

According to professor of art history Alexis L. Boylan, you’ve probably viewed an Ellen Emmet Rand painting at a college, in a house of government or hanging on the wall of a major company’s headquarters. Chances are, you’ve seen one–you just don’t know it.

Throughout her lecture on Rand’s style and conception of race and gender at the William Benton Museum of Art Wednesday evening, Boylan talked about the artist’s unique story and why it deserves to be remembered. For Boylan, who curated the exhibit, it is just as important to remember the portraitist as it is to remember the high society figures she painted.

“Ellen Emmet Rand… was in the business of not forgetting, of making objects that would make people remember,” Boylan said. “As a portrait painter, her weekly work, her life’s work, was to ensure that people would be seen in perpetuity.”

More specifically, Boylan discussed the reasons to remember Rand’s history accurately, stating how Rand’s life does not fit into the typical narrative of a rediscovered female artist.

The typical recovered female artist would be radical and progressive before being “thwarted by forces out of her control, the central agent of which inevitably tend to be a male lover or husband whose own artmaking and career dominates her life,” Boylan said.

In addition to this undoing, her children are often said to distract the typical recovered female artist from her work. However, this artist will continue to create art, and her glory will lie simply in her artwork’s survival. Eventually, some art historian or curator will rediscover her work and apply this narrative to her life in order to explain why she is not as famous as others.

In contrast to this standard narrative, which Boylan described as “narrow” and “repetitive,” Ellen Emmet Rand refused to be seen as a victim. She held conservative politics, enjoyed her children, maintained a difficult marriage and aspired to money, all while painting portraits of some of the most powerful and influential figures of early twentieth century America, including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

“I really like how Professor Boylan noted that it doesn’t really fit the feminist image of ‘Oh, a feminist painter,’ but [Rand] still had a family and kids and all that, and how it doesn’t fit but it’s still important to know, to bring these women artists into view,” eighth-semester fine arts photography major Tiffany Taylor said.

Boylan’s second major point was that artists like Ellen Emmet Rand should be “rewilded,” an ecological term that indicates the reintroduction of a previously present but currently absent species into an environment. When applying the term to Rand, Boylan explained that instead of fitting the artist’s life to a preconstructed narrative, those who see her work today should consider how Rand mattered as a painter in her own moment and how her work now matters in the present.

Students found the presentation engaging and said they learned much about Rand’s life and memory from it.

“You think like back in the day, not that many women were artists, so even though they were out there, I feel like I didn’t know that they were still so accomplished, so it was kind of surprising that she was so famous, but then also disappointing because it’s like she was, and now she’s not,” second-semester digital media and design major Heather Rutishauser said.

Though Rutishauser noted her disappointment that Rand is largely unremembered, Boylan’s work to display Rand’s work goes a long way in helping modern audiences to remember the portraitist. The exhibition “The Business of Bodies: Ellen Emmet Rand (1875-1941) and the Persuasion of Portraiture” will be on display at the Benton until March 10.


Stephanie Santillo is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at stephanie.santillo@uconn.edu.

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