August 22, 2019 | 76° F

Portraits of empowerment: Rutgers student paints past female presidential candidates

Photo by Courtesy of Valerie Suter |

Above are preliminary, smaller paintings that Valerie Suter worked on. On the left in green is Belva Lockwood, and on the right is Victoria Woodhull. Suter said that while doing the paintings she became interested in her subject’s stories.

Valerie Suter, a Mason Gross School of the Arts graduate student and fellow at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, is bringing women’s empowerment to life by painting the women who have run for president as part of her current fellowship project.  

Born into a family of artists, Suter said she cannot recall a time when she was not painting as a child. 

“I can’t remember a time where I stopped making things,” she said. 

Although she continued to paint as she grew older, Suter said she was not always focused on visual art while studying history at McGill University in Montreal. During her fourth year of college, Suter decided to take a year off from her history degree to study painting abroad at Central Saint Martins in London. 

London was where she first had her own studio space in a school environment, Suter said. She was then able to start a lot of paintings, one of them being the first portrait she painted of a historical figure, Virginia Woolf. While reading her work, Suter said she was inspired to paint her as well as other authors. Eventually, the clothing retail store Anthropologie began selling home decor with prints of her Virginia Woolf piece, as well as a paintings Suter did of author Lydia Davis. 

For Suter, portraits are a way to explore things that interest her in terms of history. 

“It was a fun way to make it more alive and get to know them in this other, visual way,” she said. 

After painting prominent female writers, the idea of women’s empowerment became more important to Suter. She said that when it came to women who had run for president, she was interested in what it meant to be a female seeking that kind of position in society and why it had been so difficult for them. 

“Every time I have talked about this project, most people aren’t aware that so many women have run for president,” she said. 

The first woman Suter painted as part of her project, and the very first woman to run for president in 1872, was Victoria Woodhull. As the owner of a newspaper business in Brooklyn and the first female broker on Wall Street, Suter said that Woodhull was an extraordinary person and iconoclast. While Woodhull did lose the election to Ulysses S. Grant, she also spent Election Day at the Ludlow Street Jail because she was arrested for sedition, Suter said. 

One of the goals of Suter’s project is to represent these women who have run for president, and legitimize them as a subject worth paying attention to and thinking about. 

“I am trying to give a sense of dignity to how they look and what they have done,” she said. 

Suter also added elements of history and the contexts of these women’s stories into her paintings. In her painting of Woodhull, Suter included the jail cell she was arrested in, and an issue of her newspaper. 

Another woman Suter is in the process of painting is Belva Lockwood, a lawyer who ran for president in 1884 and 1888. Suter said she added the Capitol to Lockwood’s portrait to portray where Lockwood hoped to be. 

To make her paintings, Suter said she looked at photographs of these women, preferring lesser quality photos. 

“I don’t like to be faithful to the photograph,” she said. “I invent a lot, and make it into something new, which is why I like to work from old, black and white photos.”

As an Eagleton fellow, Suter is also part of a one-year graduate program at the Eagleton Institute of Politics. The program is open to graduate students from all departments and schools, so recent fellows have represented a diverse set of interests and perspectives. During the one-year program, all Eagleton fellows take a seminar in the fall and are placed in an internship in the spring. 

Suter is currently taking a class on perspectives in American politics, which she said has affected how she has approached her project. In the class, Suter said students talk about leadership qualities and what has made presidents successful in American history, as well as read political works such as Niccolò Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”

“These things have been entering into how I have been thinking of portraying these women,” she said. 

Overall, Suter said she plans on finishing the project before 2020, which is the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote. 

She also hopes to inspire young women to think about working in politics, and possibly even running for president. She said that imagery is important, and simply being exposed to the fact that so many women have run for president will make young women feel that there are people who have done it before. 

“You feel less alone in aspiring for something like that, which is such a source of confidence for people,” she said. 

Catherine Nguyen

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