Sarah Belchetz-Swenson, distinguished painter, printmaker, and portraitist, passed away near her home in Williamsburg, Massachusetts on September 12, 2021. She was 83.
Belchetz-Swenson’s figurative paintings, still lifes, and landscapes capture the essence of her subjects and transform everyday scenes. Her distinct and complex style, deeply rooted in the study of old-master techniques, combines keenly observed drawing with abstract elements, and an emotional – sometimes surreal – use of color. In a 1982 article, “Out of the Daily, the Sacred,” author and educator Alexandra Johnson described Belchetz-Swenson’s most well-known series of paintings, Rites, as a complex evocation of women’s daily lives: “Swenson, like Vermeer, is a poet of the interior world. For both artists, everyday activities – pouring milk, opening a letter – assume mythic significance.”
Sarah was born in Cairo, Egypt on May 24, 1938, the daughter of Dr. Arnold Belchetz and Pearl Komaiko Belchetz. She grew up in Larchmont, New York, and knew, by the age of five, that she wanted to be an artist. Throughout her childhood, Belchetz-Swenson studied with private teachers; at thirteen, she joined the Art Students League in New York City. She attended Oberlin College, graduating as a studio art major in 1960.
After engaging with the New York art scene, supported by fellow artists, including her cousins Rudolf Baranik and May Stevens, Sarah chose to build a life with her husband, Victor Swenson, and their daughters in Johnson, Vermont. She later moved to Williamsburg, Massachusetts, where she designed the second of two houses, both with large and well-equipped studios.
Belchetz-Swenson painted portraits of college presidents, top surgeons, heads of organizations, and other dignitaries. Her subjects included the author Jill Ker Conway, the first woman president of Smith College; the poet laureate Richard Wilbur; Rose Olver, the first woman to hold a tenure-track position at Amherst College; and the legendary civil rights attorney Jack Greenberg. For the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, she combined research with imagination to create a portrait of the 17th century English playwright Aphra Behn, the first woman writer in the Library’s collection of literary greats. In The Many Masks of Modern Art, critic and painter Theodore F. Wolff describes her style as “lean, discreet, and precise… her ability to identify with her subjects is remarkable.” He notes “how sensitively [a painting of two children] has been composed, and how exquisitely every line, tone, and form interrelates with every other nuance or detail, and with the composition as a whole.”
In the early 2000s, Belchetz-Swenson began a close and productive collaboration with art conservator/art historian Phoebe Dent Weil, founder of the Northern Light Studio in St. Louis, Missouri. They conducted original research on the materials and styles of the old masters; created a pathbreaking course on historic painting techniques at Smith College; taught historians and curators; and presented their findings at museums, workshops and international conferences. Their ground-breaking paper, “Exploring Rembrandt’s Painting Materials and Techniques: Rembrandt and Burnt Plate Oil,” was published in The Art of the Past – Sources and Reconstructions (Clarke, Townsend, and Stijnman, eds. (2005) London: Archetype).
Belchetz-Swenson’s work can be found in many university and private collections, including the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, Australia, the Huntington Library in San Marino, California; Columbia University; Smith College; the Commonwealth Fund in New York; the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art; Oberlin College; and the New Hall Art Collection at the University of Cambridge UK, Europe’s largest permanent collection of modern and contemporary art by women. The fourteen drawings of her Holocaust memorial Revisions were exhibited in a solo show at the Jewish Museum in New York. In recent years, Belchetz-Swenson was a member of the Oxbow Gallery in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Sarah was a creative and inspiring mother and grandmother, who continued to learn and work into her eighties. She gave her children and grandchildren a deep love of nature and taught them to see depth, color, and nuance in life. She kept Jewish traditions alive in her home, passing down a love for and appreciation of her Jewish heritage. Sarah was also a vibrant member of her local Williamsburg community and could often be seen heading out in her distinctive straw sunhat and paint-splattered jeans to sketch local houses and landscapes. She enjoyed good conversations with friends and was accompanied over the years by various much-loved animal companions.
Sarah is survived by her two daughters, Zoe Swenson-Wright and Saskia Swenson Moss; her son-in-law, Yonatan Moss; four grandchildren: Sofia Swenson-Wright and Akiva, Yovel, and Heleni Moss; and a sister, Deborah Salzer. She was predeceased by her younger sister, Ruth Belchetz.
Sarah’s family wish to thank her wonderful caregivers at Linda Manor in Leeds, Massachusetts, who cared for her after a stroke in April 2021. We are also grateful to the Pioneer Valley Hospice team for easing her final days.
Donations in memory of Sarah can be made to the ACLU or Planned Parenthood.
A spring memorial event is being planned.
Photo by Michael Bauman