- Open to the Public
This exhibition explores the evolution of Sarah Belchetz-Swenson’s art throughout her long career.
Belchetz-Swenson’s distinct and complex style combines a fluent use of traditional techniques with a modernist and feminist sensibility. There is always a tension between her precisely drawn subjects and the challenging, complex, emotion-infused worlds they inhabit.
The painter, printmaker, and portraitist Sarah Belchetz-Swenson (1938–2021) was born in Cairo, Egypt and raised in Larchmont, NY. By the age of five, she knew that she wanted to be an artist and began to study painting and drawing. She joined the Art Students League in New York City at thirteen and graduated from Oberlin College as a studio art major in 1960.
After sampling the New York art scene, Belchetz-Swenson moved to New England, which offered her the autonomy, inspiration, and space she needed to grow as an individual artist. First in Vermont and later in Massachusetts, Belchetz-Swenson embraced every aspect of the artist’s life, studying modern and historical painting and printing techniques, and designing two houses with large studios.
During the 1970s, Belchetz-Swenson experimented with a wide range of materials and methods and extended her figurative work to include commissioned portraits. Over the course of her career she painted many distinguished subjects, including the poet laureate Richard Wilbur and the civil rights advocate William Henry Hastie, both Amherst College graduates; Rose Olver, the first woman to hold a tenure-track position at Amherst College; the author Jill Ker Conway, the first woman president of Smith College; and the legendary civil rights attorney Jack Greenberg. For the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, she combined research with imagination to create a portrait of the 17th century English playwright Aphra Behn, the first woman writer in the Library’s collection of literary greats.
In the early 2000s, Belchetz-Swenson began a close and productive collaboration with art conservator and art historian Phoebe Dent Weil, founder of the Northern Light Studio in St. Louis, Missouri. They conducted original research and created a course on historic painting techniques at Smith College; they presented their findings to historians and curators at museums, workshops and international conferences. Their ground-breaking paper, “Exploring Rembrandt’s Painting Materials and Techniques: Rembrandt and Burnt Plate Oil,” was published in The Art of the Past – Sources and Reconstructions (Clarke, Townsend, and Stijnman, eds. (2005) London: Archetype).
During her long career, Belchetz-Swenson held solo shows at many galleries and colleges, with the Rites series exhibited most widely. Her work can be found in many university and private collections, including the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, Australia, the Huntington Library in San Marino CA; the Commonwealth Fund in New York; the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art; and the New Hall Art Collection at the University of Cambridge UK (Europe’s largest permanent collection of modern and contemporary art by women).