Portrait painter Ellen Emmet Rand’s ‘Business of Bodies’ at UConn

Ellen Emmet Rand (1875-1941) was ahead of her time. She started a career in illustration when she was a teenager, then went to Paris to study.

Upon returning, she married and got work as a portrait painter. She spent weekdays in New York as the breadwinner to support her mother, sisters, sons and her husband, who stayed in Salisbury living an easy country life. In her lifetime, she painted 800 portraits.

An exhibit of portraits by Rand is at Benton Museum in Storrs. The museum has 41 Rand works in its collection, a gift from the painter’s three sons. The Dodd Center on campus also owns a large collection of Rand’s papers, donated by her granddaughter.

The exhibit is called “The Business of Bodies” to emphasize both Rand’s artistry and entrepreneurial acumen. Rand acted as her own promoter, record-keeper, accountant and haggler and kept detailed records of her transactions and her impressions of sitters.

“Her work as a businessperson was to sell bodies. She had to imagine what people imagined that they looked like, and paint in a way that captured the imaginary version but also was a realistic version,” says Alexis Boylan, curator of the show.

Rand was the first woman to paint an official presidential White House portrait (of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) but that painting is now lost. Her clientele included well-known names: Auchincloss, DuPont, Astor, Vanderbilt. But her most charming paintings are of lesser-known names.

Charlotte Haxall Noland, founder of Foxcroft School, is seen in riding clothes, whip in her hand and top hat by her side. Rand depicted Frederick MacMonnies, her mentor, painting a portrait. The work is a portrait of a working portraitist, created by a working portraitist.

A young woman, Jean Sargent, poses reluctantly. Rand’s papers state that the girl abandoned her sitting after one day, needing a body double to continue. The charming “Penelope” shows a baby in a bassinet, staring at the artist, his mother by his side, looking away doing needlework.

The most heartbreaking portrait shows Rand’s much-younger half-brother, sleeping peacefully as a rosy-cheeked toddler. As a young man, he took his own life.

The paintings are complemented in the galleries by period garments curated by Lynne Zacek Bassett.

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