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Sesquicentennial Snapshots: The Ubiquitous Portrait

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 Annie Massa, Vassar College class of 2013 and Art Center student docent.

This portrait of Matthew Vassar currently greets visitors in the Art Center atrium.

Recognize this image? As Vassar College celebrates its 150th birthday this year, Charles Loring Elliot’s portrait of our dear founder Matthew Vassar has become positively inescapable. Vassar’s rosy face, as Elliott portrayed it, peeks out of a banner atop every e-mail on sesquicentennial related programming. If you Google image search Matthew Vassar, Elliot’s portrait will come up as your first hit.  It accents the “More About Matt” biography put out by the Office of Communications.  And recently it was front and center on the college homepage, with the festive addition of a massive birthday cake piled on the antique Roman vase at the portrait’s right.

The portrait appeared on the Vassar homepage with the addition of a celebratory cake.

This is an image that by now is immediately recognizable to members of the Vassar community, but Elliot’s portrait of Matthew Vassar matters as much more than webpage and e-mail adornment.  Elliot captured our founder’s psyche just as his vision of opening a women’s college was becoming a reality.  It is a portrait as old as the college itself, and a key piece in the Art Center’s permanent collection.

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.

In his portrait of Matthew Vassar, Elliot caught the drama of a moment we’re all celebrating now: the beginning of Vassar College. There’s a good reason this image gets so much attention in the Vassar community.  Elliot’s portrait does more than show us what Matthew Vassar looked like; it captures our founder’s confidence in Vassar College and his certainty of the school’s success.

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