The women are seen from behind, their faces turned away from the viewer, their features indistinct. Creamy complexions, upswept hair, a luminous expanse of bare shoulder. A suggestion of a life, a woman’s life – but whose?
The ten paintings on display at the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park through May 25, installed throughout the rooms of the 19th-century home, are part of a unique collaboration between the historic site and artist Angela Fraleigh. “Lost in the Light” is a site-specific installation that creates a connection between the now-empty rooms and the lives that were once lived in them. But the images of women in the paintings are enigmatic, cropped in such a way that one cannot tell whether the subject of the work is a member of the elite family who lived there or a member of the “downstairs” staff.
The exhibit stems from Fraleigh’s most recent body of work, in which she similarly explored the “invisible histories and dormant narratives” of the female subjects within Old Master paintings. These women are often perceived as passive objects of desire, says the artist, whose intention became an effort to “restore some agency to those characters. In my mind, I’m essentially rewriting the story so that these women are actually kind of up to something.”
In creating a body of work specifically in response to the Vanderbilt Mansion, the artist tried to learn as much as she could about the women who had lived and worked there. “But I struggled to find any real information at all,” she says. “A lot of it is anecdotal. A lot of it is just lost. There’s plenty of information about the men, because the men had careers. But the women are still somewhat a mystery.”
After coming to one dead end after another, trying to follow a trail of information only to have it evaporate, that process became her subject matter in the end, Fraleigh says. “I started thinking about how that was representative of how little information we have about women through all of history, because they haven’t mattered as much. The paintings became about that lack of access. The portraits are of figures from behind; you’ll never be able to have access to who they were specifically.”
Fraleigh says that she hopes that the paintings spark a conversation for visitors to the mansion. Accompanying the exhibit is a book by writer Jen Werner featuring Fraleigh’s works interspersed with Werner’s lyrical and fragmented text. The artist says that she had long wanted to do such a collaboration with a writer, but it was important to her that the project didn’t become just one of them illustrating the other. After several false starts, a recommendation to a friend of a friend turned into the collaboration with Werner, who went to the Vanderbilt Mansion on her own and wrote four texts based on accounts from the interpretive mansion guides, her own research and her imagination.
An artist talk, reading and book signing will be held at the mansion on Sunday, February 14 at 2 p.m. A tour through the exhibit with the artist and writer will include readings from Werner at key locations in the house. Following the tour, a book-signing and question-and-answer session will be held in the visitors’ area.
“Angela Fraleigh: Lost in the Light” book-signing/artist reception/tour, Sunday, February 14, 2 p.m., free with $10 tour, through May 25, Vanderbilt Mansion,119 Vanderbilt Park Road, Hyde Park; (845) 229-7770, www.nps.gov/vama.