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Sesquicentennial Snapshots: Becoming a Force

Along with Vassar College, the Art Center is celebrating the sesquicentennial anniversary of our founding. In this weekly feature, we will look back on the rich 150-year history of the collection. Today’s post comes from Taylor Shoolery, Vassar College class of 2012 and Art Center student docent.

William Zorach (American b.Lithuania, 1887-1966) Portrait of Edna St. Vincent Millay, c1918, Charcoal, Gift of Tessim Zorach, 1971.11.

Many students at Vassar College hope that there will come a day when we will known as a force—whether it be in art, politics, academia, or whatever line of work we choose to pursue.  At 21, when she matriculated at Vassar, Edna St. Vincent Millay seemed to already be a force in every sense of the word.  Her poetry, already taking its elegant, deep, and at times unpredictable form, astounded her peers and mentors alike. In a drawing of Millay, done in 1918 by William Zorach, less than a year after she graduated from Vassar, the poet has a penetrating gaze, a somber attitude, and strong presence. The journalist Dorothy Thompson described Millay as “a whimsical genius, sometimes…petulant and imperious… sometimes…stormy, turbulent, and as unreckonable as the sea…sometimes a lost and tragic soul,” wrought by the “most penetrating intelligence, and the gift of evoking the most passionate and tender love.” Zorach clearly recognized the same wild talent and profound presence in the young woman that had left a deep impressed on Thompson and those she knew at Vassar.

While at Vassar between 1912 and 1917, a much more rigidly regulated school than the version we know today, Millay had a reputation for unruliness.  Although her talent had already impressed her professors, she often found herself in disagreeable disciplinary situations.  At a disciplinary meeting with President MacCracken, the president of the college informed her that despite her continual disregard for school policy, he would not expel her “because he didn’t want another ‘banished Shelley’ on his hands.” So Millay continued on with her education at Vassar and several semesters and a suspension later, managed to graduate in 1917.  Her legacy, tumultuous as its roots may have been, serves as inspiration to those of us Vassar students who may not always take the rules at face value, but question and think critically and, hopefully, one day, have the force of character to change our environments with our art, our words, and our ideas.

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