The beauty of glorious attire and what it communicates to others is celebrated in two works of art announced by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Mrs. Theodore Atkinson, Jr. (1765), an oil portrait by John Singleton Copley, considered one of the most influential painters in colonial America, augments an exceptional collection of portraits by Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent. Dress Impression with Wrinkled Cowl (2007) by Karen LaMonte, a leading figure among American artists using glass in large-scale sculptures, builds on the collection’s emerging strength in contemporary art.
Working more than 240 years apart, both artists captured the essence of their subject in very different ways. As was typical in 18th century portraiture, Copley expressed Mrs. Atkinson’s elevated social status by painstakingly depicting the lavish details of her attire – the luster of pearls at her throat and in her hair, the shimmer of lace and the sensuous folds of her fine satin gown.
“Frances Wentworth Atkinson was very young and had just married well; she was at the height of sophisticated American aristocracy at that time,” said Chris Crosman, chief curator. “She also was at the center of a love triangle that developed into a scandal later on. Copley has opened a window on the mores of late Puritan New England and the psyche of the sitter, a beautiful woman with full cognizance of her own charms; this is one of his most accomplished portraits up to that point in his career.”
The significance of the flying squirrel that Mrs. Atkinson holds by a delicate gold leash is unknown. Squirrels were featured in several emblem books available to Copley as symbols of desirable character traits and were considered suitable for inclusion in portraits of children and women. Thomas Raddell, author of The Governor’s Lady (New York, 1960), a fictionalized account of Mrs. Atkinson’s life, posited another interpretation of the squirrel: “The squirrel’s the tame husband on the lady’s chain.”
Born in 1738 and raised in Boston at a time when formal artistic training was unavailable in the colonies, John Singleton Copley was largely self-taught and became the most sought-after portraitist in New England before moving to London, England in 1774. He was celebrated for the accuracy of his likenesses and his portraits frequently included artifacts related to the lives and interests of his subjects.
Karen LaMonte’s sculpture strips away the individual gaze and accoutrements that are emphasized in traditional portraits such as Copley’s. In Dress Impression with Wrinkled Cowl, the subject is absent but subtle traces of her presence remain in the life-size glass sculpture of an ethereal, flowing garment. To achieve this effect the artist made two molds, one from the actual body that shaped the interior, and a second from the garment, and then combined them into a single form that captures light and reveals the angle of the knee, the curve of the breast and other hints of the missing figure.
“Beyond the fact that this sculpture is dazzlingly beautiful, there are many layers of allusion – the armor and symbolism of clothing, what it reveals and doesn’t reveal,” said Don Bacigalupi, director. “As a young female artist, LaMonte is aware of these intersections, and she’s achieved a remarkable fluidity and grace while responding to classical antecedents.”
Karen LaMonte was born in New York City in 1967 and received her bachelor of fine arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1990. A 1999 Fulbright Fellowship enabled her to travel to the Czech Republic, where she studied glass casting in the famed Pelechov studio founded by Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova in the 1950s. In addition to her acclaimed series of large-scale glass gowns, LaMonte also has experimented with photographic and printmaking processes.
LaMonte has participated in many international group exhibitions and her work was featured in a solo exhibition at the Czech Museum of Fine Art in Prague in 2004. Her work is represented in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Australia; the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum; The Corning Museum of Glass and the Toledo Museum of Art.