For Krannert Art Museum, every acquisition must transform the collection, telling new stories we could not before. Like most US art museums, KAM primarily collected art by male artists for decades. Over the past fifteen years, our team has consciously changed the way we collect, prioritizing work by women.
This fall, we are thrilled to debut a painting, acquired by curator Maureen Warren. This work addresses themes of female accomplishment and artistic friendship: Maria Flaxman’s full-length portrait of the writer Anne Porden from the 1810s.
The artist, Flaxman, came from a family of artists and is best known as a prominent book illustrator. Her subject, Porden, was an ascending young poet who drew on her studies of the natural sciences, medieval history, and Arctic travels (her husband was an early explorer).
What I dearly love about this painting is how it centers the idea of female achievement and represents close-knit artist networks in London in the early 1800s. This portrait stands out for the remarkable familiarity between sitter and painter.
Porden’s relaxed expression, unexpectedly casual hairstyle, with soles of her shoes turned out toward us are signs of informality, speaking to the friendship of artist and poet. It’s easy to imagine the two talking about art, literature, and mutual acquaintances while Flaxman painted.
The portrait also makes bold claims for the poet. The grand room with elaborate furnishings and classical references removes her from a domestic setting, elevating her into a figure at home with antiquity and surrounded by objects of her profession.
The vase demonstrates education: its design combines elements from two different carvings, one in Florence, the other in London. The hefty books speak to Porden’s learning, while pen, paper and silver inkwell identify her as a working writer. And, the murky landscape outside the window draws on ideas emerging in the 1800s that associated moody landscapes with creative spirit.
With this painting, we not only have a second example of a historical female European artist on view, but a work celebrating women’s talent, speaking to London’s legendary artistic networks, showing how a painter can convey a writer’s mind in a single image. And the painting’s impressive scale means the work can command the Bow Gallery at KAM, hanging alongside our other large European paintings for every visitor to enjoy.
Author: Jon L. Seydl, Museum Director
Published: The News-Gazette, Champaign IL (Sunday, October 9, 2022)