Today’s wisdom: The Fleming Museum is not the Louvre. You are in no danger of being overwhelmed by lofty ceilings, mile-long galleries, and an acute case of “museum legs.” The intimate size of the Fleming results in some of the works keeping interesting company. Yesterday morning I was struck by one corner of the American collection, in particular, where an Andy Warhol screen print of a cow neighbors a painting that always draws my attention: the late professor Francis Colburn’s portrait of the late Mary Jean Simpson, UVM’s first dean of women.
Colburn painted the dean in his familiar style, a gawky earnestness about it, Simpson pictured in a melded landscape with Ira Allen Chapel of her professional life over her right shoulder, and her personal Vermont roots in Craftsbury represented by rolling hills over her left. Between the scenes, Dean Simpson stares out at the viewer from behind eyeglasses of the day, fixing a timeless look that suggests you–you, standing there in the Fleming Museum–may have violated a student code of conduct. And it seems likely that code is stipulated in one of the stern volumes on the desk in front of her.
Explanatory text on the wall by the portrait includes a passage from a four-page letter that Dean Simpson sent to the parents of all incoming female students in 1945. She warned that one’s daughter “should not let her work pile up, nor sacrifice regular study hours to pleasant social demands, nor give more time than she can afford to ‘dates,’ sports, or other extra-curricular activities… It is expected that the women of the university shall at all times conduct themselves with dignity and good taste.”
Admirable standards and sound advice from another age, no doubt. But after a few minutes sensing what it might have been to be called into the Dean’s office for sacrificing too many hours to pleasant social demands, it’s a bit of a relief to turn to the gentle gaze of Warhol’s cow.