This is the story of how the presidential portrait of Ellen Sabin, president of Milwaukee-Downer College from 1895-1921, came to be. This portrait currently hangs in the Milwaukee-Downer Room in the Mudd Library.
President Sabin Sits for her Portrait
It was not Miss Sabin's idea at all to have her portrait painted. She thought a photograph would serve the same purpose and be far less expensive. But a group of admiring friends, headed by Miss Alice Chapman, as Miss Sabin always called her, had raised $2,000 and selected the best portrait painter of his day, Louis Betts of New York and Paris.
For once, though she was the president of Milwaukee-Downer College, Ellen C. Sabin was overruled. She faced the ordeal of the long sittings with the same courage she had always brought to every difficult problem, but her first intimate contact with the world of art proved almost too much for her sterling character.
I have always thought it would be fun to sit for a portrait. Many people enjoy the experience -- I'm sure that the Mona Lisa did! But Ellen C. Sabin was not the Mona Lisa. She was a determined woman of 60 trying to make the best of an unhappy situation.
It was easy for Mrs. Francesco del Giocondo to smile for Leonardo da Vinci, but Miss Sabin was not in love with Louis Betts -- quite the contrary. She not only disliked him but distrusted all "artists" in general.
Find a stand-in, advised grandfather
Now, had Miss Sabin followed my grandfather's advice she would have been spared a great deal of trouble. He often said that anyone planning to be painted should try to find a "double" to sit in his place, preferably someone who resembled the subject but was, of course, slightly better looking. Naturally he never knew Miss Sabin or he might have realized that trying to find a stand-in for her would have been as futile as seeking a substitute for the Taj Mahal.
The problem of a costume in which she would pose seemed simple enough to Miss Sabin; she owned a "best outfit" which served for all important occasions. It consisted of a dark woolen dress whose long skirt covered her pretty feet and ankles and a long-sleeved waist whose high-necked top was pinned in front with a garnet brooch. She gathered her graying hair into a tight knot on top of her head and into this thrust a black velvet ribbon rosette, her one concession to frivolity.
Mrs. Betts traveled with her husband and was a great help to him in "handling" his subjects. He had no "small talk," but she had more than enough for both. She antagonized Miss Sabin from the very start by suggesting that she apply some "make-up." Miss Sabin brushed this aside imperiously as an attempt at deceit and dishonesty. Had she not frequently admonished us, "Let your faces shine, girls; you don't want to be like those French women." We did want to be like them, of course, but none of us would admit it.
Looked displeased for three weeks
Very tactfully, Mrs. Betts prevailed upon Miss Sabin to wear her cap and gown over the "best dress," and it was decreed that she should also hold a scroll or diploma in her hand. She sat in a large carved oak chair, unsmiling and unhappy, while Betts painted anxiously and Mrs. Betts tried to "break the ice."
Once she said, "Now, Miss Sabin, try to look pleased." Miss Sabin could look pleased on occasion, but displeased came more naturally. So she sat looking displeased for three weeks while the Bettses did what they could.
Once they sought to cheer her with reminiscences of their art student days in France, but they changed their talk when Miss Sabin declared, "I think that we will not discuss those days -- and nights -- in Paris."
Great was Miss Sabin's relief when she found that Louis Betts did not work in an artist's smock and beret but in a conventional business suit and that he looked not in the least "bohemian." That word for her covered all the unmentionably wicked things in the world.
Miss Sabin stared out at the campus
All through the long hours of posing, Miss Sabin seldom spoke, but Mrs. Betts chattered on hopefully and nervously. Miss Sabin would stare out the window at what the girls called "Charlie Pfister's cow pasture" -- that beautiful campus whose trees never had lover's initials carved on them, nor entwined hearts cut into their trunks for all eternity. Such shenanigans were discouraged at Milwaukee-Downer College in 1912.
At last the portrait was finished and was hung on the chapel wall. Miss Sabin pretended to ignore it. Just once she remarked, as we stood before the painting, "I look exactly like an apple dumpling."
Many people came to see the portrait and to ponder the significance of the object she held in her hand. Some guessed that it was a scepter; others said it was a baseball bat.
In my biographical dictionary I find: Louis Betts, b. 1873Ð. That dash indicates that our artist survived the trauma he experienced while painting President Sabin's picture and lived to a "ripe old age" -- which is remarkable when you consider that such an ordeal could well shorten a man's life.