Frances Brand (1901-1990) was a U.S. Army major, a civil rights activist, a world traveler, a devoted churchgoer, and a portrait artist, among other things. Some remember her as a colorful eccentric who loved to dress in purple, while others knew her as a committed and lifelong social activist. Brand retired from the military in 1954, studied art at Mexico City College where she earned a fine arts degree, then moved to Charlottesville in 1959.
In the 1970s, Brand undertook a series of portraits of individuals from Charlottesville and Albemarle County that would become the Gallery of “Firsts.” This collection had at least 157 portraits of local people that Brand believed to be the first to do something. Many were firsts in their field of study, work, or in public service, but Brand included those with less notable accomplishments that were nonetheless considered important by the community. She made an effort to represent a myriad of races, classes, religions, and professions. Of the 157 portraits, 93 feature women. Brand captured in her “Firsts” images of change in a small Southern community during the latter half of the twentieth century, a time when social change made it possible for individuals to achieve firsts where previously their gender, race, or nationality denied them the opportunity.
Most of these portraits were completed between 1974 and 1978, but Brand continued to add to the collection until her death in 1990. Many of Brand’s subjects were civil rights activists, in line with her own desire to understand and empower people whose backgrounds were different from her own. She was influenced by Mexican folk and street art, including contemporary Mexican Muralists like Diego Rivera, who espoused a school of public art wedded to social conscience.
To see twenty-five of these portraits in person with more detailed biographies, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society has “Re-Opened the Gallery” at the Center at Belvedere from July 5 to August 31, 2022. Admission is free. This project was written and curated by Ineke La Fleur.
Some of the identities of these “Firsts” have been lost over the years. Similarly, we know the names of some of Brand’s subjects, but aren’t sure why she painted them or what they wish to be remembered for. If you have an answer to any of these questions, please contact us! You can also add information about any of the Firsts to Frances Brand’s cvillepedia page!