Anna Belle Crocker (1868-1951), Self Portrait ca. 1926, Oil on panel, Portland Art Museum
I was looking on the Internet for some paintings by Frank Vincent Dumond when I came across something special, something extraordinary -- a self-portrait by one of his former students at The Art Students League of New York, Anna Belle Crocker, 1868-1961. Now none of us have ever heard of this woman in the context of her art career, and I’m not about to track down decent images of any more of her paintings, which would be an enormous task from the look of things. But her vivacious self-portrait is just one more example of how superior the portrait painters of the past were to those professing to practice this profession today.
Why do we spend any time at all considering the work of today’s portrait artists, who think their work is done if they render an exact image of the sitter as photographically as possible, whether working from photos or from life. Ms. Crocker’s self-portrait, painted when she was around 58 years old, is the kind of head John Singer Sargent himself might have painted. The handling of those glasses and the pupils of her twinkling eyes are right out of his playbook. Her delightful expression, caught when it appears she had been amused by something and had held in her breath waiting to reply, her nostrils slightly flared, is utterly captivating and convincing.
Let’s face it, animated, true-to-life portraiture left the building with Sargent, Zorn, Orpen and their contemporaries; there is no doubt about that. Even the 19th Century Academic Realists like Bouguereau managed to paint heads from life that conveyed the message that there was an active brain behind the face mask, something no contemporary portrait artist or academic wannabes seem willing or able to accomplish. Why won’t today's painters concede that their rendering techniques, so blatantly promoted for all the world to see in YouTube videos, are far less important than the sitter’s mind in creating a successful portrait?
At any rate, despite ample evidence of her painterly skills from that one brilliant self-portrait, Ms. Crocker’s noteworthy legacy was not gained from her painting, but from her long association with the Portland Art Museum, where she served as the chief curator and director from 1909 until her retirement in 1936. She was a frequent lecturer there, as well, and founded the museum’s docent program. During those years, she also ran the museum’s art school, now named the Pacific Northwest College of Art.
Anna Belle Crocker was born in Milwaukee, but the family moved to Portland in 1878 when she was 10 years old. She began studying art as a teen, and became one of the few women admitted to the museum art school in 1891. She made two trips to New York to study at the Art Students League, first in 1904 and again in 1908, after which she was asked to become curator of the Portland Museum by banker William Ladd, one of the founders of the museum. She had worked as his secretary while she was studying art in Portland. Somebody on the Internet noted humorously that Portland had found its new museum director in the typing pool. It turned out to be a very good find for the city.
To prepare for her new job, Ms. Crocker embarked on journeys to study museums in New York and Europe, where she became aware of the modernist trends sweeping the continent, and she embraced them. Back in Portland, she brought many touring exhibits to the museum, including one in 1913 that featured Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and related modernist works famously shown at the New York Armory earlier that year.
They say Ms. Crocker remained a dedicated artist, concentrating on portraits and still lifes, but certainly her artistic endeavors took second place to her museum duties, which she carried out with great energy and passion. The author of a blog called Fifty Two Pieces wrote that Ms. Crocker “worked relentlessly on behalf of the Museum” during her 27 years as director and curator. ”She was one beautiful, smart, strong woman. There are not enough adjectives to describe Anna Belle Crocker,” wrote the blogger.
I know. I’ve just seen her self-portrait.