sophie mcclellan with portraits

Life at the museum

January 11, 2023


Senior Sophie McClellan’s love for art began with family visits to see the work of young artists.

“I grew up on the campus of a boarding high school, and at the end of every semester my parents would take me to the students’ art show,” McClellan said. “Even at 2, 5, 10 years old, I thought it was the coolest thing ever.”

McClellan, who is majoring in art history and leadership studies, began working at the University Museums in her first year on campus as a gallery attendant, and worked her way up, becoming a curatorial intern and then a Harnett fellow by her senior year.

The Joel and Lila Harnett Summer Research Fellowship is awarded to one student each year, providing them the opportunity to curate a show of pieces from the University’s permanent collection for the Modlin Center for the Arts. For her exhibition, McClellan decided to focus on portraits, and curated a collection titled “Therefore I Am: Portraits from the Joel and Lila Harnett Print Study Center.” Some of the images from the collection include “Reigning Queens” by Andy Warhol and “Self Portrait” by George Tooker.

“The self-portraits in the exhibition are my favorite ones because you look up the name and you can see how they implement their style into their own image,” McClellan said.


McClellan combed through nearly 600 portraits in the collection and narrowed it down to 19 to be displayed. For each portrait, she wrote the panels that accompany the piece, and biographical information about the artist. She is writing her senior thesis on Mary Cassatt, an artist who is known for her portraits of mothers and children.

“Her portraits are so beautiful,” she said. “She never had children, she never married. So, I just like to imagine the observation that went into each image. The moment that she was painting this with these two individuals in front of her, I think is so magical because she's just pulling from what she's observing.”

Her grandfather, a retired art history teacher, inspired her to pursue the subject as a major at the University of Richmond.

“I am very grateful to have been exposed to art as a study, and that art history was an option for me,” McClellan said. “I just love learning. We have these resources at our fingertips in public museums, they are such an amazing resource.” 

After graduation, McClellan hopes to pursue a full-time career in museums, and help others cultivate a love for art and art history.

“You don't really get to appreciate art for what it is unless it's right there in front of you,” McClellan said.


Update: In April, The Jepson School named McClellan a 2023 Jepson Scholar, awarding her an all-expenses-paid scholarship to attend the University of Oxford, where she will pursue a Master of Science in visual, material and museum anthropology.