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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Painting Betty Crocker

Neysa McMein's 1936 original portrait of Betty Crocker. 
Born in the board room of  the Washburn Crosby Company in 1921 (the largest of six milling companies that merged to become General Mills), Betty was fifteen years
old at the time.
Actress, Agnes White (no
relation to Martha White)
was Radio Betty, 1921 
Artists for centuries have had a field day painting people who never existed, everyone from Santa Claus and Superman to Venus, Helen of Troy, and Rosie the Riveter. Since they never existed there's no worry about them suing for defamation of character, though some of these characters, such as Superman, are actually owned, their character closely guarded. Warner Brothers seems to be the current owner of the "Man of Steel." A similar situation exists with General Mill and their highly regarded kitchen queen, Betty Crocker. They're both roughly the same age and have had more visual incarnations than Mickey Mouse (though Mickey's pretty much in the same category). I started off researching the American artist, John Stuart Ingle, then got sidetracked to Betty. She's much more interesting and far more attractive than Ingles.

Betty Crocker VIII, 1996,
John Stuart Ingle.
However, we can credit Ingles for having had a part in making Betty look good. Ingles painted the most recent (1996) portrait of Betty, and it would seem he created a more than adequate depiction in that his image (left) has stood the test of time for the past eighteen years. Neysa McMein's 1936 original portrait (top) hung around for nineteen years so Ingles may yet have a shot at the record. Artist Joe Bowler's 1965 facelift lasted only four years before he was called back to do an update (below, left and right). And that one was replaced by Minnesota artist, Jerome Ryan's "businesslike" version just three years after that (1972). Actually, an earlier, black and white image of Betty Crocker (above, right) dates from her "childhood" years on the radio when an actress named Agnes White (above, right) played Betty Crocker, answering questions from listeners about baking. Some guy once "fell in love" with her voice and proposed marriage. Betty (and General Mills) politely turned him down. Ironically, it seems her career was such that she had no time to be a homemaker. Since then Betty has become something of an "old maid," now rapidly approaching her hundredth birthday. However, thanks to artists like Ingle, she doesn't look a day over thirty.

Joe Bowler's short-lived 1965 (left) and 1969 (right) Betty Crocker portraits
Hilda Taylor's 1955 Betty Crocker.
My own love affair with Betty Crocker came through my mother's iconic "Big Red" cookbook (below, right) dating from around 1955, also the year Betty Crocker got her first facelift, from illustrator, Hilda Taylor (left). Although my mother literally wore the book out, before that, I recall having done some pretty serious studies of the three-ringed volume in search of good things for mom to fix to eat. I still have the cookbook, by the way (no longer usable). Fortunately, my mother bought us an identical new copy when my wife and I were married in 1969 (which has also seen its better days).

The 1955 "Big Red" my mother
(and I) knew and loved
The point in all of this is not to sing the praises of Betty Crocker, who, after all, never existed. Ingles latest image was pulled together from photos of over seventy-five women, their likenesses applied to the earlier, 1986, update by New York artist, Harriet Perchik (below). Talk about your art by committee!

Harriet Perchik's 1986 Betty.
Folks worried the bow might catch
fire if she bent over a hot stove.
No, the point I'd like to make is the power artists have long had to literally "shape men's minds" (and women's in this case), creating a "person" out of sheer thin air so important, viable, and valuable that General Mills once spent a million dollars to update her image (though I'm guessing the artist got no such figure). Though she never lived or stirred up a General Mills cake mix, Martha Stewart refers to Betty as her "idol." She ranks right up there with (and perhaps well above) her rival, Martha White (who was actually a real person) Aunt Jemima, and Uncle Ben. I hear she's good friends with Mr. Clean, Tony the Tiger, the Burger King, as well as Snap, Crackle, and Pop. I also have it on good authority she has a pet gecko with an Australian accent.

The Betty Crocker hall of fame (General Mills board room).


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