A prolific painter of landscapes, towns, and harbors, artist Nina Belle Ward (1885-1944) was also a talented figure painter. As a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) from 1907-1912, she would have studied under famous portrait artists such as William Merritt Chase and possibly Cecilia Beaux. Records show that Ward showed numerous portraits around this time. In 1914, her portrait Elizabeth won the Mary Smith Prize, an award granted to exceptional works by female artists who exhibited at PAFA.
After completing her education, Ward continued to show portraits at PAFA and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Her work was shown alongside pieces by well-known artists including Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent. Two of Ward’s portraits are in the collection of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts: Portrait of a Lady in Black and Portrait of a Girl in Pink Dress. These were gifted to the KIA by Alexander Pitzer Ward, the artist’s brother, after her death in 1944.
Portrait of a Lady in Black and Portrait of a Girl in Pink Dress feature exactly what you would expect: elegantly attired young women. As they gaze out at us, we can’t help but wonder: who are these fashionable ladies? How did they know Nina Belle Ward? What kind of lives did they lead, and why were their portraits made? The truth is, we can never know for sure, because little information exists about them. The best we can do is make educated guesses based on what we observe and know to be true. The paintings were in the artist’s possession when she died, so they were likely not commissioned portraits. The subjects may have been friends, classmates, or relatives of Ward who modeled for her.
A Sophisticated Lady
Portrait of a Lady in Black was likely shown at the PAFA Annual Exhibition in 1912. It depicts a young woman wearing indistinct dark clothing with a long necklace. While her outfit is painted in ambiguous, brushy forms, her face and hands are rendered with complex colors and details, revealing a bit of her personality. The delicate gesture of her hand as it plays with her pearls is graceful and serene. Her facial expression is as mysterious as her clothing is stylish. Soft yet stern, the woman seems to be questioning our observance of her. We scrutinize the forms of her face and body, and she seemingly looks out of the frame to do the same to us.
Because Ward dated so few of her paintings, it is hard to say exactly when Girl in Pink was made, but it has been speculated to be 1917. While Lady in Black features feathery edges and more or less smooth gradations, Girl in Pink is composed almost entirely of brushy strokes of hard color. The girl’s face has especially intense hues, from the green shadows on her chin to the deep red blush that adorns her cheeks. The color and texture create a lively, energetic, and youthful tone, as opposed to the contemplative maturity of Lady in Black.
One of Ward’s teachers at PAFA was likely William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), a painter who covered diverse subjects including portraits, landscapes, interior spaces, and still life works. Many of his portraits are notable for the illusion of direct eye contact between viewer and subject, perhaps an effort of the artist to capture the spirit of each sitter. Eye contact is an important element in portraiture because it encourages a viewer to form an emotional connection with the subject. Perhaps this is why Ward’s two portraits are so magnetic; the way their subjects seem to look at us invites us to consider them as real people, not just representations.
Another possible teacher of Ward’s was Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942), a friend of Chase’s. She too painted portraits that emphasized face and clothing, showing off the social status of her sitters. From the beautiful dresses and jewelry of Beaux’s sitters-as well as those of the subjects of Lady in Black and Girl in Pink-we can presume that many portrait subjects were middle- to upper-class individuals.
Not all portraitists of the day painted only the wealthy. Robert Henri was an influential painter who made many portraits of poor, immigrant children. Ward would have seen his work in an exhibition at PAFA in 1908. The bright red cheeks and naturalistic expressions depicted in Henri’s pieces are similar to those of Girl in Pink.
Nina Belle Ward left behind few facts about her works. Portrait of a Lady in Black and Portrait of a Girl in Pink Dress are not the only paintings of Ward’s whose origins are foggy to us. We can make educated guesses about their creation dates and the locations they depict, but many details remain impossible to determine. However, despite the lack of information on Ward’s portrait sitters, the captivating manner in which she represented the women makes them just as real as if we knew their names and stories.
— Allison Hammerly, KIA Exhibitions & Collections Intern