This charming full-length portrait represents Olivia Egleston Phelps Stokes (1908–1983), one of three children born to the Episcopal clergyman and educator Reverend Anson Phelps Stokes and his wife, Caroline Green Mitchell. Active in New York and Massachusetts, Lydia Field Emmet was one of the leading society portraitists of her generation. Particularly admired for her portraits of women and children, at the height of her career she was considered one of the most talented American woman artists, second only to Cecilia Beaux. Her fluid, painterly style was influenced by John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase. The latter had been one of her teachers at the Art Students League in New York, and she taught at his Shinnecock Summer School of Art on Long Island.
One of Emmet’s most popular works, Olivia amply demonstrates why she was considered particularly adept at painting children. Her contemporaries found this spontaneous image of a young girl irresistible, and the portrait was awarded an honorable mention when it was exhibited at the Carnegie Institute in 1912. No less a critic than Guy Pène du Bois admired the “most decided truth” in
that picture [of] a little golden-haired girl in white, holding her hat at her back with its ribbons. The attitude is spontaneous, quick, vivacious. Her eyes sparkle, her mouth opened in a half smile discloses teeth that add a spot of animation to the composition. The handling of the head has been accomplished, in the matter of solidity and simplicity, with unusual success—the planes of light, well kept, are broken only just enough. So with the short white dress which is saved from monotonous simplicity by a well-placed necklace.
The portrait also impressed the modernist collector Duncan Phillips, who described it to the sitter’s husband as representing “a very small & lovely child holding on to a sunbonnet which seems to have just slipped off her little blonde head. She is bright-eyed and smiling and the artist was evidently enraptured with the subject.”
The portrait was commissioned in 1911 by Olivia’s father, the son of a New York banker who had aided in founding the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while he was secretary of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and serving as assistant rector of Saint Paul's Episcopal Church there. Born in New Haven, Olivia graduated from the Foxcroft School near Middleburg, Virginia, and attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania from 1925 to 1930. A member of the Junior League of Washington, DC, and the Colony Club of New York, she was an active member of the American Red Cross and the American Conferences of Social Work. She lived the life of a fashionable debutante until 1939, when she married John Davis Hatch Jr., a noted historian of American art and museum administrator. The couple had four children. From the 1940s until her death in 1983 she worked and volunteered with many organizations, including the League of Women Voters, the Race Relations Group, Recording for the Blind, and the Berkshire Music Center. She traveled extensively throughout her life and coauthored with Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson Olivia’s African Diary: Cape Town to Cairo, 1932 (1980), which describes their trip throughout Africa. Stokes died in an automobile accident in 1983.
In addition to their many philanthropic interests, the Stokes family had a tradition of commissioning portraits from the most fashionable American artists. Beaux had painted a full-length portrait of Stokes’s parents (Mr. and Mrs. Anson Phelps Stokes, c. 1898, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and Sargent’s portrait of the subject’s architect brother and sister-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes (1897, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) is a celebrated work. More than just a stylish portrait in the vein of Beaux and Sargent, Emmet’s Olivia, with its tilted floor, slanted ground line, and slightly off-center figure placed within an evocative interior, most strongly recalls Chase’s depictions of children lost in the wonder of exploring the richly appointed rooms of their extensive homes, such as Hide and Seek (1888, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC).
August 17, 2018