About Harriet Fitzgerald
Born in Danville, Virginia, in 1904, Harriet Fitzgerald is remembered as a “Renaissance woman” and “a magnificent human being” by those who knew her. She attended preparatory school at Stratford Hall in Danville, Virginia, and in 1926 graduated from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College with a major in English. At R-MWC Fitzgerald was an active member of the student body, serving in various leadership roles, most notably as president of student government.
After graduation, Fitzgerald moved to New York City to study painting, first with John Sloan at the Art Students League and later with Maurice Stern, Ambrose Webster, and George Grosz. The young painter also studied in Europe, visiting museums and galleries and immersing herself in classical and contemporary art. She later wrote of her time as an art student: “[I] had haunted the galleries from the start. . . . Defended by honest ignorance, I had rushed in where angels would have known better. At Randolph-Macon our professors had read our poetry, discussed our paintings, listened to our opinions. Here [in New York] some of the dealers seemed to play a sort of professor role. . . . I did not overestimate the stage of my own development as a painter, but I had unquestioned confidence in my right to be taught by those who knew.”
In time, Fitzgerald came into her own as a painter. Her landscapes, portraits, and still lifes were shown at museums and galleries throughout the northern and southeastern United States, with solo exhibitions at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Norfolk Museum, the Butler Art Institute, the Dayton Museum, and the Macbeth, Milch, and Charles Barzansky Galleries in New York. In 1948 Fitzgerald founded the Abingdon Square Painters, an art cooperative named for its first location in Greenwich Village, serving as the cooperative’s director for thirty-five years.
Like many R-MWC students of her era, Fitzgerald had come under the influence of art professor Louise Jordan Smith. “I knew Miss Louise well,” she wrote in 1983; “I happily stretched her canvases and was a great deal around the studio learning many things.” Inspired by Smith, Fitzgerald led the student body in a formal request to the Board of Trustees for a tuition increase of five dollars to provide funds for art exhibitions and purchases. In response, the trustees voted to create the Fine Arts Fund to support all the arts, an action with a significant and permanent effect on the College.
For decades Fitzgerald collaborated with Professor Beatrice von Keller and then with Professor Mary Frances Williams as they negotiated with New York art dealers to acquire paintings for exhibition or purchase by R-MWC. Fitzgerald thus played a major role in building the College’s art collection. As an art student she had developed contacts with many dealers, including Alfred Stieglitz, from whom the College bought John Marin’s Taos Mountain and Georgia O’Keeffe’s Yellow Cactus. During negotiations with Stieglitz, Fitzgerald wrote, with characteristic exuberance, “I lost my heart to Yellow Cactus.” Her friends teased her about her collaboration with von Keller, saying “’When Bea von Keller comes to town, both of you get drunk on art.’”
Fitzgerald’s passion for art was matched only by devotion to her alma mater. In 1929, just three years after graduation, she was elected to the Randolph-Macon Board of Trustees, which at that time governed all three institutions in the Randolph-Macon system. As an alumna trustee, Fitzgerald was a strong advocate for the woman’s college at a time when the trustees appeared to focus much of their attention on the men’s college at Ashland. After the 1953 separation of the system’s institutions, she remained on the R-MWC board, eventually serving for forty-five years. As a lecturer in the Arts Program of the Association of American Colleges, Harriet Fitzgerald represented her alma mater well, speaking at institutions throughout the country, as well as teaching in the arts program of the Virginia University Center and at Stratford College.
Harriet Fitzgerald clearly understood the vision of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College as a place of academic seriousness and commitment to integrity, creativity, and the individual student. She recognized the radical importance of the founding of the College at a time when many southerners still questioned the value of higher education for women. Moreover, Fitzgerald celebrated Randolph-Macon’s effort teach students “dignity, restraint, . . .respect for someone else’s point of view, and. . .the ability to disagree in good humor,” even as she recognized that tradition is not static but “always in a state of creation.” Addressing the graduating class of 1978, she reminded her audience of the importance of life’s choices, concluding that “by our choices we become what we choose.”
Harriet Fitzgerald’s devotion to R-MWC was lifelong. A year before her death in 1984, she spoke at the dedication of the Harriet Fitzgerald Room, where many of her paintings were displayed. Noting the College’s “powerful charge of. . . special magnetism,” she observed, “No matter what it is that we do, all of us tend to want to bring it back, one way or another, to Randolph-Macon to be approved of, for the blessing of the College to be upon it.” In making that statement Harriet Fitzgerald obviously spoke for countless Randolph-Macon alumnae who honor their alma mater and want to see the woman’s college experience remain a choice for bright, eager young women.