Video: 'Super Models' on display in Boston's Bromfield Gallery

Chris Bergeron

For artist and feminist Betsyann Duval, creativity is the sincerest form of admiration.

To honor the “smart, sexy and sassy” female pioneers who've forged modern women's identities, the Acton resident drew “Super Models,” 22 large-scale charcoal portraits now exhibited at Bromfield Gallery in Boston.

Duval's portraits capture her subjects' distinctive characters by subtly expressing their most recognizable iconic features.

From the gallery's walls, Hillary Clinton exudes determination, Edith Piaf gazes with doleful longing, and Susan Sarandon smiles confidently.

“I really liked drawing them, capturing the essence of these women,” Duval said, pausing before a portrait of her late mother, Rebecca “Betsy” Cooper. “They've been so powerful and influential and helped women define their lives.”

Working on her exhibit for two years, Duval drew a varied group of women, including political activists like Rosa Parks, choreographer Martha Graham and Italian actress Sophia Loren.

She hopes her images of women who triumphed over obstacles and gender bias reverse the prevailing tendency to “objectify” females as objects of desire or limit them to stereotypical roles.

Citing the intelligence, courage and dignity of her “Super Models,” Duval hopes they serve as a “counterweight” to the “corporate greed and media exploitation” that fuels the public obsession with high-profile bad girls such as Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith.

Displayed on two facing gallery walls, the 32-by-40-inch portraits in “Super Models” hang in two rows of five images with two other drawings on a narrow wall next to a wide door. The exhibit runs through April 26 in the gallery at 450 Harrison Ave. in the South End of Boston.

Entering the gallery and looking left, a visitor will see, among others, Mae West, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Sophia Loren and Rosa Parks.

Each portrait is accompanied by a direct quote that Duval believes succinctly expresses her subject's essential character.

For the platinum bombshell West, Duval chose: “To sin is human but it feels divine.” Perhaps reflecting Duval's own sentiments, Kennedy Onassis is quoted saying, “I am a woman above everything else.”

Looking at the galley's right wall, visitors will see, among others, Bette Davis, poet Anne Sexton and opera diva Marian Anderson.

Again, Duval has selected quotes that reveal her admiration for strong women who aren't afraid to speak their minds. Known for her roles as outspoken women, Davis is quoted saying, “When a man gives his opinion, he's a man. When a woman gives her opinion, she's a bitch.” A Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who collaborated with Duval's husband to put her verse to music, is quoted saying, “Put your ear close to the soul and listen hard.”

Duval is married to Robert Clawson, a teacher, poet and publisher from Acton.

Duval agreed that her 22 subjects had widely varied careers and interests. Yet she believed they shared a fierce determination to achieve their dreams without sacrificing their integrity.

She said drawing a subject's eyes is “the key” to capturing their essential character.

Duval said she drew her subjects by first looking at photos of them and then “transposing them into abstractions.”

“I was really drawing lines and planes. I start by rubbing in the face's outlines and adding details. I always find it's a complete mystery that when I step back to look, they look like somebody,” she said.

For 12 years Duval has been reinventing herself as an artist after selling the advertisement agency she founded and managed for 30 years.

“In 1995, I decided I wanted to be an artist,”she said.

After studying painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, she showed her work in three varied exhibits at the Bromfield Gallery. She has earned several prizes for her paintings, sculpture and performance-based work.

Observing the portraits hanging slightly above her, Duval expressed pride in completing such a deeply personal project.

“I'm happy to look up to my work,” she said. “I love my work.”

Seeming at home among all the luminaries, Duval's mother, Betsy Cooper, is quoted saying, “You can do anything you put your mind to.”

She might have been describing her daughter's exhibit.


Betsyann Duval's “Super Models” is on view at the Bromfield Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., Boston, through April 26. The Bromfield Gallery is Boston's oldest artist-owned gallery. Contact the gallery by calling 617-451-3605 or visiting