Frances Foy 1890–1963

The Hostess (Portrait of Helen Gertrude Strain)

, dated 1936

Oil on board, 31¾ by 25¾ inches

The Hostess is Frances Foy’s portrait of Helen Gertrude Strain, the older half-sister of Foy’s close friend and fellow artist Frances Strain. Known as Dedie, Helen never married, and she supported herself and her three younger half-sisters by working as a stenographer, later rising to an executive position. Foy posed Dedie, wearing a simple black dress, against a backdrop of houseplants and a light-colored wall or open window. The large yellow stone in a necklace at her throat and her matching bracelet and ring pick up the reddish-gold of her fashionably crimped hair. Holding a cigarette in her right hand, Dedie supports her left hand on her right forearm in an elegant gesture that suggests her social ease. Her facial features are individualized in a likeness that captures her self-confident, independent persona without idealizing her physiognomy. Dedie’s casual pose, attentive expression, and remote gaze suggest that she is engaged in conversation with an unseen partner. The Hostess, Foy’s apt title for this work, is given on a hand-written label, probably inscribed by the artist, on the back of the canvas.

Foy was a versatile artist who by the mid-1930s was well-known for still-life images and murals on narrative themes as well as images of children, as for example her Portrait of a Girl. Although many of her portraits were commissioned likenesses, Foy also portrayed family members and close friends. Four years before she painted this portrait of Helen Strain, she made a sympathetic image of her friend Frances (formerly Powell and Barbara Bridges Collection). Both works may have been gifts to the sitter’s family. In any case, the two portraits descended to Frances Strain’s son Garrett Biesel.

This painting amply displays Foy’s characteristic delicacy of line and color. Using short, choppy brush strokes, she modulated the tones and subtly animated the surfaces of forms ranging from the sitter’s flesh, hair, and dress to the crisply curling leaves that create a decorative backdrop for the figure. She likewise softened color, suggesting a diffused, even light filling the space and downplaying the contrast between pale background and the solid black of Strain’s dress. When The Hostess was shown in the 1937 annual exhibition by the Chicago modernist group The Ten, the Chicago Tribune’s conservative critic Eleanor Jewett noted that the portrait’s “blond motif” might easily have resulted in a “monotonous whine” in less capable hands: “Miss Foy, however, is a past mistress at keeping a low keyed picture vivacious and alert.”i The harmonious formal aspects of this portrait complement a sympathetic likeness of a subject with whom the artist certainly had a personal connection.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i  Eleanor Jewett, “The Ten Meet Expectations in Annual Exhibit,” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 19, 1937.

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