“With the paint smeared on her thumb,” the Pennsylvania-born Ella Sophonisba Hergesheimer “captivated the South and was in turn captivated by it.” A descendent of Charles Willson Peale, Hergesheimer took after her famous relative and pursued a career in the visual arts. Her middle name and preferred professional moniker, Sophonisba, pays homage to Peale’s own daughter, who, in turn was named after another famous female artist, the Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola. She enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1900, studying under William Merritt Chase and Cecilia Beaux, and regularly won prizes for her artistic achievements, including the coveted Cresson traveling scholarship—a three-year award for study abroad. Her European travels brought her to Paris, where she took courses at the Académie Colorossi and exhibited her paintings at the prestigious Salon.
By chance, Hergesheimer submitted several of her paintings to an international traveling exhibition co-sponsored by the Nashville Art Club and Atlanta Art Association in 1905. These works caught the attention of Bishop Holland M. McTyeire, one of the founders of Vanderbilt University, who would thereafter commission the artist to paint his portrait. Executed upon the artist’s return to this country in 1907, the portrait’s success led to subsequent commissions; Hergesheimer soon found herself limning “many of the wealthiest and most beautiful women of the South.” To her delight, she discovered an abundance of possible subjects in the region: “The country around Nashville is, some of it, the most beautiful I have ever seen—a large and bounteous field for the landscape painter.” So assured of the possibilities available in the region, she declared Nashville a future art center of the South and resided in the state until her death in 1943.
While Hergesheimer experimented with other painting genres and even dabbled in printmaking alongside fellow artist Blanche Lazzell, portraiture was her primary source of income. Lauded for her ability to convey “poetic feeling in addition to mere physical form,” Hergesheimer’s portraits reveal as much about the artist as they do the sitter. Such is the case with her 1920 Portrait of Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, a work that alludes to the challenges both women confronted in that era. Breckinridge was a prominent leader of the women’s suffrage movement and a tireless advocate for children’s welfare in her home state of Kentucky and on the national stage. The Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, was ratified in Kentucky on January 6, 1920, the same year Hergesheimer completed Breckinridge’s portrait. And although Hergesheimer was not known to be active in the suffrage movement, her defiance of conventional gender roles—she never married and was self-supporting—suggests a certain kinship between artist and sitter.
Using broad strokes of rich color, Hergesheimer presents a mature woman of quiet authority—composed, assured, and at ease. Sitting askew in a chair with decorative gilded fluting and deep blue fabric, Breckinridge confidently meets the viewer’s gaze. Attired in a loose, diaphanous dress, she also wears a heavy overcoat and cloche hat embellished with stars. In her lap, her left hand holds a dense bouquet of purple flowers. Traditionally associated with royalty and fidelity, the blooms’ color may be signaling loyalty to the suffrage cause and a belief in the glory of womanhood. Hergesheimer strove to communicate her sitters’ essential natures, imbuing these likenesses with a quality she believed unobtainable through the increasingly popular medium of photography. Here, she portrays her subject with palpable sensitivity, perhaps aware that Madeline Breckinridge was succumbing to tuberculous, which would cause her death mere months later.