Helen Metcalf Danforth (1887–1984) became president of the Rhode Island School of Design in 1931 and led the board from 1931 to 1965. Under her leadership, RISD became an accredited degree-granting institution with a growing international reputation. Danforth also significantly advanced the growth of the RISD Museum. Her generosity is reflected in more than 2000 objects—everything from ancient sculpture to contemporary art—that were given to the museum or purchased from funds she endowed. These works include numerous French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and drawings, an area of interest she shared with her husband, orthopedic surgeon Murray S. Danforth.
In 1956, on the recommendation of RISD Museum director John Maxon, Mrs. Danforth commissioned Aaron Shikler, a young New York figural painter, to create her portrait. In a conversation during July 2008, the artist remembered her as “one of the great ladies” he had met over his long career.
The portrait’s intimately scaled format and distinctive composition reflect Shikler’s abiding interest in the 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer, whose figures are often seated in interiors amid familiar objects. Known today for his portraits of Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy hanging in the White House, Shikler described this sitting with clarity and affection, recalling Danforth’s graciousness and the hospitality she extended at her home on Prospect Street.
Signed, LL:Shikler '56