Brenda Zlamany – Shifting Historical Iconographies

In Dialogue with Brenda Zlamany

Portrait of Brenda Zlamany with the Davenport Dining Room Scene, 2018. Oil on panel. Left panel: 58 x 42 in. Right panel: 58 x 39 in. Photo courtesy of Robert Lowell.

In recent years we have been experiencing a major re-examination of iconographies and narratives portrayed in historical paintings and sculptures—portraits of male figures re-evaluated and removed, portraits of females and people of color, added. Working within the context of historical portrait painting, till surprisingly quite recently, has implied working within a mostly male dominated territory, for both artist and subjects. Additionally, depicting Historical figures requires the artist to develop their own research approach, which typically differs from the process of depicting living subjects. Painter Brenda Zlamany, who has been commissioned to paint several substantial group portraits of historical women, among them—Yale’s First Seven Women PhDs and Rockefeller University’s five women scientists—elaborates on these issues and describes her approach to historical portrait paintings.

Tell me a bit about yourself and what brought you to portrait painting, and more specifically, historical portrait painting?

In 1992, as an experiment, I painted a portrait of Bill Arning, the director of White Columns, and slipped it into my still life exhibition. At the time, portraiture was not in fashion and I had been painting still lifes that hovered somewhere between abstraction and figuration. The portrait of Bill received a surprisingly positive reception, perhaps because of the subject matter, and it encouraged me to continue with portraiture. That same year, I organized “Flesh” at Four Walls in Brooklyn and invited several then-emerging figurative artists, including John Currin, to be on the panel. My first portrait show, 12 Men & 12 Birds, was held in NYC in 1994 and included twelve portraits of well-known bald male artists. I viewed the work in a feminist context, reversing the traditional male gaze on the female subject. The show’s success led to important portrait commissions, which in turn expanded the scope of my project to include historical figures. For instance, The New York Times Magazine invited me to paint Jeffrey Dahmer for an artist-created issue on evil, Marian Anderson for an article by Jessye Norman, and Osama bin Laden for the cover of the September 11, 2005, issue.

Portrait of Yale’s First Women PhDs, installed in Sterling Memorial Library, 2016. Oil on linen on panel, 72 x 59 in. Photo courtesy of Ian Christmann.

Let’s focus first on your Portrait of Yale’s First Seven Women PhDs, honoring the first seven women to receive PhDs from Yale, in 1894. It was commissioned by the Yale Women’s Faculty Forum and is permanently installed in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library. What would you like to share about the genesis of this commission, and what was your research approach for this project?

In 2014, a competition was held for the portrait and I spent that summer isolated in my studio, consuming anything and everything related to the project. I researched each woman individually, learned about the history of Yale and about women in the late 1800s, listened to music from the era, studied paintings from the time, and even watched historical movies to get ideas for fashion. Eventually, the women dominated my dreams.

What was your process of painting these portraits? How did you choose to represent your subjects, the way they interact in the group, and the color palette? What was the relationship between the source material/research and the painterly process?

I studied group portraits in the history of painting and noticed that the strongest were organized by a sweeping diagonal gesture: Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, and Caravaggio’s The Crucifixion of Saint Peter. So I decided to include a telescope. The ground color is blue for Yale, but I selected the colors for the women’s dresses to harmonize with neighboring paintings at Sterling. I made hundreds of small paper cutouts of the seven women from a variety of sources and began arranging them on a rectangle. Historical photos and depictions of women in paintings by John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, and William Merritt Chase showed me how women of the time carried themselves and how they interacted in a variety of situations. To establish a likeness for each of the women, I made individual portrait sketches from preexisting photos, correcting the hairstyle and adjusting the age, attitude, and gaze. I consulted with a curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology and then enacted the scene with live models at a costume rental shop. I also selected objects for their historical accuracy. For instance, Cornelia Rogers is seated in a chair designed by Carlo Bugatti in 1890, holding a copy of El Cid, the subject of her dissertation. A trademark in my large-scale commissioned works is a hidden self-portrait. In this painting, it is located in the beaker.

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Research for Portrait of Yale’s First Seven Women PhDs, 2014. Studio photo courtesy of Brenda Zlamany.

In an interview with Yale News (by Román Castellanos-Monfi, 2016) you said, “A great portrait is more than a likeness; it says something about the individual and humanity in general.” It is particularly challenging when you deal with historical figures who are no longer here. One figure stands out in the group: dressed in white and holding a paper in her right hand, she is the only one who turns away, perhaps to talk with the woman who sits across from her. We cannot see her face, only her body gesture. Who is this character and why does she turn away from us?

She is Sara Bulkley Rogers. Yale could not provide a photo of her, and after a lengthy search, I did not uncover any (a fact that may speak to who she was), so a likeness was not possible. But in my research, I discovered Rogers’s male pseudonym—Schuyler Shelton—along with her novel published under that name, Life’s Way (1897), about the difficult choice between love and art and the struggles and sacrifices that young women faced in the mid-1890s. This established Rogers, a woman who hid her identity, as a keen observer of her fellow students and of human nature in general, and I decided to depict Rogers turning toward Mary Augusta Scott, her face hidden, as if to listen.

Portrait of Yale’s First Seven Women PhDs, 2016. Oil on linen on panel, 72 x 59 in. Photo courtesy of Bill Orcutt.

And what would you like to share about your recent project, a depiction of five women scientists from Rockefeller University, finished in December 2021 with an unveiling planned for spring 2022?

Currently, there are no portraits of women scientists on the walls of Rockefeller University, so this painting is long overdue. The composition was challenging because the five women scientists were not at the university during the same time, and then they were there for different lengths of time. Finally, I decided to depict each woman at the age when she first did her pivotal work and to organize the women in chronological order to suggest the flow of time. The project is an initiative of Women & Science at Rockefeller, and the scientists on the committee preferred to avoid the stereotypical lab coats. However, it was wonderful to have access to Rockefeller’s historic instrument collection, and the staff helped me select and set up instruments for my composition to demonstrate the women’s professions.

Can you pick one of the historical figures in the Rockefeller painting and elaborate on your research, the way you chose to depict her, and how your composition evolved?

The committee felt it was important to hint at Louise Pearce’s personal life as well as her scientific achievements. She lived with physician Sara Josephine Baker and author Ida A. R. Wylie on a farm in New Jersey, and they were all members of Heterodoxy, a feminist biweekly luncheon discussion club with many lesbian and bisexual members.

In the portrait, Pearce is wearing a charm bracelet in the shape of New Jersey that Baker gave her to reference her living arrangement. I merged the cover of one of Pearce’s publications with the patterns on the cover of the Heterodoxy photo book to create the volume that she holds, and I dressed her in an outfit that Baker wears in the photo book. Her tie is a deep purple because violets were a symbol of lesbianism in the early 20th century, and she is seated on a stool from the Rockefeller Historic Laboratory.

Portrait Depicting Five Pioneering Women Scientists from Rockefeller University, 2021. Oil on linen on panel, 82 x 101.5 in. Photo courtesy of Robert Lowell.

Unlike these two paintings, where all the subjects have passed away a long time ago, your Yale Davenport painting depicts some living people. How does the process of bringing to life a historical subject differ from painting a living subject?

For the Davenport portrait, I created a dining room scene where the tables in the portrait are extensions of the tables in the room. One of the subjects is deceased, so I combined aspects from photos that I was given with photos that I found on her Facebook page. The other eight subjects are alive and spread out in various locations throughout the United States. Once I had the idea for the composition, I traveled to each location and shot hundreds of photos of the subject enacting a variety of possible poses. I then made paper cutouts of the subjects and moved them around on rectangles until I arrived at the final composition. From there, I created a life-size sketch. In some ways, it is easier to work with live subjects because I do not need to dress body doubles in period costumes, but there is an added tension. In this case, the portrait subjects who work at Davenport will encounter the portrait every day. In all public portraits, there is a tremendous responsibility in creating the subject’s legacy, but in a portrait with contemporary subjects, there is the added excitement that they will be there judging the image.

Davenport Dining Room Scene installed at Yale, 2018. Oil on panel. Left panel: 58 x 42 in. Right panel: 58 x 39 in. Photo courtesy of Ian Christmann.

Brenda Zlamany is a painter who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Since 1982, her work has appeared in numerous solo and group exhibitions in the United States, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei; the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; the New-York Historical Society; the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver; Frankfurter Kunstverein, Germany; the National Museum, Gdansk, Poland; and the Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent, Belgium. Her work is held in the collections of the Cincinnati Art Museum, Deutsche Bank, the Neuberger Museum of Art, Yale University, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. She has received portrait commissions from the World Bank, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, The New York Times Magazine, Yale University, Rockefeller University, and other institutions. She has also received a Fulbright Fellowship, a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant, a New York Foundation for the Arts Artists’ Fellowship in painting, and a Jerome Foundation Fellowship.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: