Mount Holyoke Female Seminary: Founder and Principal, 1837-1849.
Three-quarter length portrait of seated female figure facing slightly to proper right wearing a white cap, white neckscarf, and dark dress. Proper left hand rests on an open book. Plain background
In May of 1834, Mount Holyoke College's founder, Mary Lyon, wrote her mother in frustration: "Sometimes my heart has burned within me; and again I have bid it be quiet.... I have thought that there might be a plan devised by which something could be done.... The future I leave with Him who doeth all things well." Lyon’s quest for purposeful direction found resolution in her campaign for a quality women’s seminary. Three years later, she opened the doors to one of the country’s preeminent women’s colleges.
Mary Lyon’s efforts were powered by her passion to serve her Lord and promote women capable of pursing meaningful life work. Her admirable devotion to this cause positioned her as a model of perseverance and piety, and over a dozen glorifying monographs emerged following her death. The very image of Mary Lyon has since become elevated to icon status—her face immortalized on a Great American Series postal stamp and her figure venerated as the personification of Truth at a chapel in Pittsburgh. Such humble depictions as this portrait by Joseph Chandler capture the school mistress on a dark background, alone save for the text in her hands. Whether holding a literary tome or the Bible that guided her work, Mary Lyon symbolizes the power of a dedicated vision.
-Rachel Beaupré, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Assistant, Mount Holyoke College Art Museum
Global Perspectives: Exploring the Art of Devotion (February 9 - May 30, 2010)
The itinerant artist Joseph Chandler created this posthumous portrait of Mary Lyon decades after the Georgian Era (1714–1830) British portraits displayed here. Its comparative primitiveness may be surprising given this chronology, yet distinctions in draftsmanship, coloration, and brushwork reflect not only variances in the artists’ training, but also the differing contexts in which they worked. While Chandler’s style draws from a folk tradition, these British painters were society artists, some academy trained, and all responsive to aristocratic patronage. Their depictions of voluminous fabrics display their expertise in modeling, whereas Chandler uses simplified linear highlights and shadows to mimic three-dimensionality. The muted background of his portrait also denies any notion of space or depth and dramatically contrasts with the European tradition of expansive landscape settings.
It is not only the pictorial methods used by these artists that are so divergent, but also the subjects they represent. Mary Lyon sits rigidly behind a sparse table, her demure attire representing not only the modesty of her temperament, but also her vocation. The flinty founder of Mount Holyoke College is a far contrast from the elegant, wealthy sitters that neighbor her here. Bedecked in sumptuous fabrics, these women enjoyed lives of graceful leisure; both the irises in one painting and the small dog in the other signify their refined amusements. While utilizing differing visual vocabularies, both schools of artists captured the individuality of their sitters; for Mary Lyon, however, Chandler has aptly selected an emblem not of material wealth, but rather one of intellectual prowess.
portraits; historical figures; local history
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