Ellen Emmet Rand (1875-1941)

Ellen Emmet Rand (1875-1941)

Ellen Emmet Rand enjoyed great success as a portrait painter at the height of her career, yet her work today only rarely comes on the open market. The majority of her canvases reside in plain sight on the walls of the private homes of descendants of her many famous sitters, as well as in the collections of colleges and museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Delaware, and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, to name just a few. Gifted as she was at capturing the likenesses of statesmen, entrepreneurs, scholars and other prominent members of society, Rand also excelled at easel painting and applied her talents to these less formal figure subjects with equally masterful results.   

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Born in San Francisco in 1875, Ellen Emmet followed in the footsteps of her two elder cousins, Rosina Emmet Sherwood and Lydia Field Emmet, in pursuing a career in the arts. While sisters Rosina and Lydia were born in New York, the younger Ellen moved back east with her family upon her father’s death around 1884, and by the age of twelve was already taking drawing lessons from Dennis Miller Bunker in Boston. She enrolled at the Art Students League in New York between 1889 and 1893, where Lydia was also studying, and in 1892 seventeen-year-old Ellen ventured to William Merritt Chase’s summer school at Shinnecock, Long Island. After a short time working on illustrations, Ellen went abroad in 1896 to round out her education in the Parisian atelier of sculptor Frederick MacMonnnies at a time when he turned his focus from sculpture to painting. MacMonnies’ own partiality to the bravura painting styles of Diego Velazquez and John Singer Sargent greatly influenced the direction of Ellen’s work. A portrait she painted of her teacher, now in the collection of the William Benton Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, attests to her preference for painterly brushwork and rich tones of color. She was also personally inspired by Sargent’s portraiture work and had the honor of meeting him in England upon first arriving in Europe. 

 Returning home to New York in 1900, Ellen began rendering the likenesses of several famous creative figures, such as sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and architect Stanford White, as well as women and children painted on commission or for her own pleasure. A composition featuring her niece Eleanor Peabody titled In the Studio, now in the collection of the William Benton Museum of Art, certainly bringsto mind Velazquez’s famous Las Meninas, specifically in Ellen’s choice to place a mirror behind her young sitter to capture her own reflection as she paints. Painted in 1910, the picture caps off a highly productive decade for the artist, including her first one-woman show at Durand-Ruel Galleries in New York in 1902, a display of seventy pieces at Boston’s Copley Hall in 1906, and an exhibition at New York’s William Macbeth Gallery just one year later. She also began participating in the annual exhibitions of the National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago, and would do so over the next three decades. In addition to contributing to these venues, she earned accolades at various world’s fairs throughout her career, including a silver medal at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904, a bronze medal at the Buenos Aires Exposition in 1910, and a gold medal at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915.

Ellen married William Blanchard Rand in 1911 and over the following years gave birth to and raised three sons while remarkably continuing to take on commissions. It was both a passion and a necessity given Ellen’s income helped to make ends meet throughout most of her marriage, and especially after the stock market crash of 1929. She worked and resided in her New York studio with her sons during the winter months, and come spring and summer they would join Mr. Rand at the family farm he managed in Salisbury, Connecticut, where horseback riding and joining the local foxhunt occupied much of their leisure time. Both Rands were accomplished riders, even spending their honeymoon traveling by horse from one end of Connecticut to the other, and in 1936, an exhibition of portraits featuring her friends in their sporting gear was held at the Sporting Gallery and Bookshop in New York. Located in the Berkshires, their Salisbury farm was about twenty-five miles south of Lydia Emmet’s summer home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, thus allowing the cousins to maintain their close relationship.

By the time of the Great Depression, Rand had been commanding between three and five thousand dollars for a portrait, and reportedly earned just shy of $75,000 in 1930, an impressive sum. Her sense of humor and jovial nature certainly helped put sitters at ease, and among the notable personalities that graced her canvases over the years were education pioneer Ada Louise Comstock, Delaware Senator Henry A. du Pont, Rhode Island Governor William H. Vanderbilt III, and U. S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Ellen Rand’s untimely death in 1941 left her family and friends bereaved at the sudden loss, with these words from a family friend to Lydia summing it up best: “[Her] death is a great tragedy for many people – and a world loss. Like an oak tree cut down that sheltered many creatures.”[1]

[1] Quoted in Hoppin, Martha J. and Lydia Sherwood McClean. The Emmets: A Family of Women Painters (Pittsfield, MA: The Berkshire Museum, 1982), p. 11.

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