Museum’s portraits take visitors back in time

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Some pictures are worth a thousand words, but the portraits at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers are worth a decades-long history lesson.

“Figural Works from the Collection” is a display at the Yonkers museum that includes paintings, drawings and painted plasters of portraits that are part of the museum’s permanent collection. The work ranges from a painted cast plaster of President Abraham Lincoln’s face to photographs of African-Americans who moved to Yonkers from the rural south between the 1920s and 1960s, taken in the early 2000s by documentary photographer James E. Hinton.

In an effort to preserve artworks from light and becoming fragile, Laura Vookles — chair of the museum’s curatorial department — switches the work out every few months. The current pieces were put up in October, and will be replaced Jan. 21.

When it comes to picking what goes up, Vookles leans toward keeping some of the work consistent with ongoing exhibits at the museums  — such as its current display of World War I propaganda posters. After assessing what could tie in with that and other ongoing exhibitions, Vookles settled on choosing portraiture as the theme. 

“You can’t tell a whole story of portraiture in one little alcove that only holds a certain number of artworks,” Vookles said. “But you can give the visitor a sense of how many different kinds of portraits there are.”

She also credits Ted Barrow, the museum’s new assistant curator, for keeping the process fun and refreshing by bouncing off ideas on how to improve the display.

“It’s really nice to have someone new come in,” Vookles said. “And it’s almost like it helps me see things with new eyes again when I’ve been looking at them for 30 years.” 

Over the last few months, Vookles said the display has shown her the incredible connections between people and portraits.

She and her team found out that a local Yonkers resident is the niece of Marguerite Chase, a woman whose portrait is part of the display. Chase was a member of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II and worked for General Motors’ eastern aircraft division in Tarrytown before going on to serve in the army.

When they asked Chase’s niece to stand next to Chase’s portrait for a photo, Vookles recalled how the relative was “overwhelmed with emotion.”

“It was just so thrilling to all of us,” Vookles said. “It feels so wonderful to be able to meet this person and say, ‘Look, here’s your aunt.’”

Another time when worlds seemed to collide between the artwork and outside life was when Clarence Faison — a man whose face is featured as a painted plaster when he was a teenager in 1995 — returned to the museum during the display’s opening reception.

“It’s fun, but it’s also, in a way, educational in the spirit of portraiture to have those real people there that were there in the portraits or connected to” them, Vookles said. 

Having Chase’s niece and Faison return to the 511 Warburton Ave., museum, Vookles added, is proof of how powerful art can be when one is able to connect these personal dots.

“I think a lot of times people might walk past portraits in museums, and if they’re not by a famous artist or maybe they’re not by a person you’ve ever heard of, you might just kind of walk by,” she said. “But when you actually have people there who are connected to the person in the portrait, and they’re so thrilled and excited about it, it gives you a lesson.

“It reminds you they’re important ... (and) why people make portraits.” 

Vookles hopes viewing these portraits will give others “a greater appreciation of portraits in their lives,” and think about how they come into play in their own lives.

“You may think that they’re stuffy old things that seem boring to you,” she said, “but really it’s an art form that’s kind of like the one art form that everyone can relate to. We all have portraits in our lives. More than ever it seems like we’re obsessed with portraits.

“So it seems to me that coming into a carefully chosen small selection of portraits, somebody can really find a connection with their own lives because it’s something that’s meaningful to all of us.” 

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