Branford College held a ceremony on Sunday for the unveiling of a portrait of the college’s first female master, Phyllis Curtin, a renowned soprano and former voice professor at the School of Music who went by the nickname “Iron Curtin.”
The celebration took place over the college’s family dinner and drew a crowd of 200, including Curtin’s family and the portrait’s artist. Curtin, who passed away in June, was known as a “devoted and passionate teacher of voice” at Yale, according to Head of Branford Elizabeth Bradley GRD ’96.
Curtin taught at Yale from 1974 to 1983, and served as Branford’s master from 1979 to 1983. She was the third woman to hold mastership at a Yale residential college, and her appointment was met with discontent from Branford fellows at the time, who called for the University to select a “real master,” Bradley said.
In the years when she served as Branford’s master, Curtin was popular among her students and “never had a frown on her face,” said Regina Starolis, who worked in the Office of the President during Curtin’s tenure.
Curtin was also a celebrated opera soprano singer and performed with preeminent musical groups including the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera.
Bradley praised Curtin’s singing prowess and her intelligence and said she had a curiosity for all kinds of music.
Claudia d’Alessandro, Curtin’s daughter, said her mother’s seriousness and competence come through in the painting without her looking severe. The acclaimed musician earned the nickname “Iron Curtin” on stage for her calm demeanor, she added.
While working on Curtin’s portrait, Frank Bruckmann, the artist, met with d’Alessandro and watched videos of Curtin singing to acquire a sense of her personality. Bruckmann, a local artist from the Westville neighborhood of New Haven, paints landscapes, still-lives, figures and portraits.
However, he said this work of oil on linen was particularly difficult to execute, as he was unable to meet with Curtin herself. Attendees interviewed at the event all said it is important to have a visual representation of a female master in a room that until Sunday only featured portraits of white men.
“The old guard of Yale did not recognize women as important equals at that time, and it is amazing because it wasn’t that long ago,” d’Alessandro said.
Molleen Theodore, associate curator of programs at the Yale University Art Gallery, highlighted the absence of female faces on the dining hall’s walls. Curtin’s daughter said the portrait marks a step forward towards gender quality.
When Bradley first looked to add a portrait of a woman to the existing collection in the dining hall, she was met with a resounding “no” from the University, she said. However, after Curtin passed away last summer, she again asked the fellows to finance the painting.
Rhea Kumar ’18, a college aide who worked the celebration, described the portrait as Bradley’s departing gift to Branford. Bradley will be stepping down from her position and assuming the role of president of Vassar College at the end of the academic year.