Aquarelles: Early Watercolors by Ellen Emmet Rand

A few weeks ago, I got an intriguing email from William Harris, a co-conspirator in the “rewilding” of American portrait painter Ellen Gertrude Emmet Rand (American, 1878-1941):

I hope this finds you doing well. I thought immediately of you when I came across this slender volume from the 1890s, “Out of Town Aquarelles,” watercolor plates by Ellen G. Emmett. Each one depicts an outdoor or athletic activity including a woman riding side saddle as well as a fox hunt. I didn’t know if you were familiar with it. Alexis had not seen it. Though I know the exhibit is over it is still fun since Rand was all of 20 when doing these. Attached are some pictures.

Very Best,
Bill Harris

The “Alexis” to which Bill referred in his email is Alexis Boylan, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Connecticut, with a joint appointment in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program and Associate Director of Humanities Institute. She led the writer of the email, William Ashley Harris, seven other scholars, and myself on an almost 4-year journey beginning with a writers’ retreat at UConn in 2016 (read more: Ellen Emmet Rand Slept Here). The resulting research led us all to contribute essays to the book, Ellen Emmet Rand: Gender, Art, and Business, published by Bloomsbury Academic in November 2020 and edited by Alexis. Her introduction to the book is titled, “The Rewilding of Ellen Emmet Rand.” “Rewilding” refers to returning an animal to its natural ecosystem, and the project solidified Rand’s rightful (and natural) place within art historical discourse.

Researching this project also led me to develop and curate the exhibition, Leading the Field: Ellen Emmet Rand, at the National Sporting Library & Museum, which we closed last April. Bill’s email gave me a welcome excuse to venture back into Rand’s contributions. Although the NSLM exhibition focused on her later work in the 1920s and 1930s, she was gifted at a young age.

In the book, Dear Females, by Rand’s granddaughter and namesake Ellen E. Rand, she drew on correspondences and archives to paint a picture of her grandmother as a young woman and consummate professional committed to financially supporting her family as a successful portrait painter from her earliest days.

Rand first studied at the Art Students League in 1889. Among her instructors was the portrait painter William Merritt Chase (American, 1849-1916), and in the summer of 1891, she was among the first students to attend his Summer School of Art at Shinnecock on Long Island (read more: Shinnecock Summer School of Art: The Art Village). Harry Whitney McVickar (American, 1860-1905), an artist, illustrator for the Frederick A. Stokes Company, and a prominent member of the New York City social scene saw Rand’s entry in an end-of-season art exhibition. At the time, McVickar was also the first Art Director for the fledgling periodical, Vogue, and he hired Rand to illustrate the second cover of the now renowned fashion magazine which was targeted toward society and written to appeal to a male demographic (read more: 1892 vs. 2017: What’s Changed, and What Hasn’t, Since the First Issue of Vogue Was Published). Rand was just 16 years old! Additionally, she was hired as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly and comfortably supported her family with her income in the following years. She was frustrated, however, by not having more time to paint (Rand 20).

Vogue. vol. 1, no. 2. 24 December 1892, Front cover illustrated by E.G. Emmet [source: https://www.vogue.com/article/vogue-125-1892-2017-compare-and-contrast-now-and-then%5D

It is at this point that we return to Bill Harris’s rare book find. Printed two years after Rand was first hired by Vogue, Out-of-Town Aquarelles was released during the Christmas season. The cover with its fine red and green paper, inset chromolithograph of a watercolor, and an ornate embossing, speaks to the quality of the publication. The title page notes that the illustrated aquarelles (French for “watercolor”) within are “Facsimiles of Paintings in Water Color” and includes the titles of six image plates that follow. The publisher is listed as Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York, the firm that had also employed McVickar.

Cover: Out-of-Town Aquarelles: Facsimiles of Paintings in Water Color by Ellen G. Emmet, 1894
Title page lists the Frederick A. Stokes Company as the publisher.

The publisher was known for its art books and the quality of its chromolithographic reproductions. “The Critic’s Review” in the 16 December 1889 Pittsburgh Dispatch noted about an earlier book printed by Stokes: “‘chromo’ is, however, an important work of art, for it means the accurate reproduction of color; it means a painting can be practically duplicated and multiplied to give inspiration and pleasure to thousands…, The Fac-similes of Aquarelles which are presented in this book belong to the same high class.”

“After a Day’s Skating.”

The first plate in Rand’s book shows a dashing young couple after ice skating. The female figure is dressed in a beautifully tailored winter outfit complete with a fur and muff. The male figure is stylishly dressed in men’s outerwear. It is a variation on the theme of Rand’s Vogue cover. Both were painted in watercolor; however, the book plate in color is much more lively than the black and white reproduction on the magazine cover.

“A Fair Horse-woman.”

The second plate shows an elegantly turned-out sidesaddle rider ready for a foxhunt. It speaks to Rand’s knowledge as an equestrian, as she herself rode aside.

“Yachting”

The third plate illustrates a fashionably-dressed young couple yachting, and the fourth a dapper polo player. The latter sport had taken hold in the United States after the founding of the Newport Polo Grounds in Connecticut in 1876.

“A Polo Player.”
“A Fox Hunter.”

The above plates of the romanticized gentleman polo player and the well-healed foxhunter are a foreshadowing of the man Rand would marry in 1911. William Blanchard Rand was 9 years Ellen’s junior, a polo player, and a horseman. Together they built the town and country life in Salisbury, Connecticut of which she had dreamed in her early years and for which she worked to support her entire career. She was a lifelong equestrian, but it was not until 1929 when she was in her fifties that she finally experienced the exhilarating sport of foxhunting following Blanchard when he became Master of Old Lebanon Hunt.

“Ready for the Toboggan.”

In 1896, just two years after Out-of-Town Aquarelles was published, the young Rand earned enough income to travel to Paris where she became the first female student of Frederic William MacMonnies (American, 1863-1947) and upon returning, embarked on a four-decade career as a pioneering and financially successful female portrait painter. The folders of early original drawings Rand had sold, which her granddaughter inherited, contained notes “that the work is never to be shown to any art dealer or critic.” (Rand, 20) Although Rand left the illustration world behind, her early works speak to her talent, dreams, and aspirations.

Thank you, Bill, for sharing this gem. It is another eye-opening layer of the rewilding of Ellen Emmet Rand.


Claudia Pfeiffer is the Deputy Director and George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator at the National Sporting Library & Museum and has been with the organization since the position was first underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at cpfeiffer@nationalsporting.org

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