Collection: Lost in the Light: Vanderbilt Mansion
Frank Futral, Curator,
The Vanderbilt Mansion
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
October 9th, 2015
Lost in the Light
The Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park, NY
October 9th, 2015 - May 25, 2016
HYDE PARK, N.Y.—The Vanderbilt Mansion is pleased to present Angela Fraleigh: Lost in the Light October 9, 2015–May 25, 2016. Fraleigh is widely known for lush, complex paintings that examine and explore power dynamics. Fraleigh’s work often tugs at the shadows of art history in search of invisible histories and dormant new narratives that might restore agency to the women that inhabit them. Mounted in the historic rooms will be 10 intimate “portraits” of female heads from behind, as well as one large 5x8ft painting in the main entry.
Much about the cast of characters that inhabited the Vanderbilt mansion remains a mystery, but none more so than the women of the era. We can find logs of men’s lives and men’s matters; men mattered. But even the female sex of the upper class were regarded with little account unless tabloid worthy. And although various members of the Vanderbilt family plastered the penny pages, Fred and Louise Vanderbilt shunned the spotlight. Perhaps that’s why we know so little about them.
There is very little evidential account of Louise Vanderbilt, and the upper-class guests that frequented the residence, as well as the servants, maids and cooks that scuttled in the shadows, behind closed doors. Much about the women who lived on the estate during this period remains elusive, as do the women in Fraleigh’s paintings.
Installed in the guest bedrooms of the Vanderbilt mansion are 10 small portraits of female heads seen from behind, the features of their face removed from view. The compositions are pared back to four elements: the limited background and the subject’s hair, skin and clothing.
In many of the back portraits—we cannot tell whether the subject is a maid or a member of the elite, or even guess what she is doing. She is enigmatic, contemplative, absorbed in some task, or dashing out of the room to continue with the responsibilities of the day. The silent figure is closed off from us and removed, enlivening our interest in the figure’s interior world. She is confessing a gulf of human experience into and out of the painting, a space beyond our reach, beyond our vision.
The tight framing of the work gives the perception of closeness to the viewer, as perhaps expected of a traditional portrait. Yet the portraits are without overt symbolic detail: no clear reference is made to class, interests or hobbies. There is a democratizing quality to this approach, one that makes all the women equal regardless of their very un-equal station in life. Yet, this highlights the lack of autonomy women had during this period; whether it be equal wages for equal work, property and custody rights or the right to vote, women were second-class citizens regardless of their economic standing.
The paintings are fixed within this state, communicating an atmosphere or essence, but firmly removed from storytelling. The portraits are mute. There is a silent refusal to expound a narrative; an emphasis on stillness, and the passage of time. These images are somewhat impenetrable and isolated, arousing longing for the stories that peopled this home, but offering only a whisper.
Accompanying the exhibition will be a unique book collaboration between Fraleigh and writer Jen Werner. The book is an attempt to give a voice to the women that lived, visited, and worked in the Vanderbilt's country house at Hyde Park. Based on oral histories, primary and secondary historical documents, and the muse of invention, this book is a tribute to the physical and psychological aspects of female life during the Gilded Age. Included in the book are partially invented stories meant to invoke not only the spirit of Louise Vanderbilt and the women who surrounded her, but also the necessary role that women played in this grand American history.