February 2, 2011

More About That Famous Matthew Portrait

The familiar portrait of Matthew Vassar, which has now been incorporated into the official design of the Sesquicentennial (along with a special cake), is the subject of a post today on the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center's blog. Here is an excerpt:

"The college board of trustees commissioned this portrait of Matthew Vassar in 1861, the year he founded Vassar College.  They chose the reigning master of formal portraiture in America at the time, Charles Elliot, for the job.  The portrait Elliot turned out was worth the handsome $1,200 sum he received for his work. Elliot’s painting shows a stately, proud Matthew Vassar indicating, with a grand sweep of the arm, his brand new college standing in the background.  In fact, at the time the portrait was completed nothing more than a foundation for the building was in place, but Elliot painted it as an elegant, polished final product—just as Matthew Vassar envisioned his college would look.

"One of the most striking elements of this portrait is Vassar’s pose.  His motion back to the college is a touch that both ties together Elliot’s composition and gives his subject real personality.  The greatest thing about Vassar’s gesture, though, is that it happened totally naturally. According to a written description by Benson Lossing, when Elliot was sketching Vassar he paused for a moment to ask if the founder truly thought this new college would succeed.  Vassar responded, “Succeed, Sir!  I know it will succeed—it shall succeed.  What can prevent its success?” In the heat of his reply, Vassar pointed back to the spot where his college was being constructed, unwittingly supplying Elliot with the perfect position for the portrait."