Elizabeth Steuart Thomas Byrd Mitchell, a prominent Baltimore portrait painter and art teacher whose work was defined by its classical realism, died of liver cancer Friday at her Ruxton home. She was 73.
Mrs. Mitchell, who was known as Polly, also was the founder of the Mitchell School of Fine Arts in the Bare Hills section of Baltimore County.
Born Elizabeth Steuart Thomas Byrd in Baltimore and raised in Roland Park, she was a direct descendant of Charles Calvert, the third Lord Baltimore.
As a teen-ager, she began attending Saturday classes at Maryland Institute College of Art and was exposed there to the European masters whose technique and use of color and light had a profound influence on her work.
She was a 1947 graduate of Roland Park Country School and earned a fine arts degree from the Maryland Institute in 1951.
She studied there with Jacques Moroger, former director of restoration at the Louvre in Paris, who had rediscovered the formula and ingredients used by such 16th-century Dutch and Flemish masters as Rembrandt, Vandyke and Rubens. He was also the inspiration behind a group of local painters, of which Mrs. Mitchell was a member, who were known as the Baltimore Realists.
Mrs. Mitchell also earned a diploma in 1969 and a master's degree in fine arts in 1972, both from the Schuler School of Fine Art.
"Polly had all the essential elements of a successful portrait painter -- outstanding quality and clarity in her technique, confidence, exuberance and extreme patience," said Ann Didusch Schuler, a Baltimore artist who co-founded the school at 5 E. Lafayette Ave. with her husband, Hans C. Schuler Jr., in 1959.
A leading proponent of the classical realism school of portraiture, Mrs. Mitchell painted about 500 oil and pastel portraits during her career. Her clients included clergymen, judges, corporate executives and physicians.
"She had great inner strength and a strong passion for art, which made her a very successful commission painter," said Jeannie B. Park, a former student, artist and instructor at Mrs. Mitchell's art school. "She worked fast and could complete a finished portrait in four to six weeks."
Nancy M. Valk, also an artist and instructor at the school, recalled her painstaking attention to the combined elements that went into a portrait.
"She very much wanted to get a good likeness and concentrated on the initial drawing of the person. She also tried to find the pleasantness and good things in a person which she'd later capture in the portrait," Mrs. Valk said. "She'd also spent lots of time talking to the individual, taking pictures, and visiting them at their homes or offices."
Mrs. Mitchell established her school in 1965 in the kitchen of her Ruxton home, teaching students after she had put her four sons to bed.
Since 1988, the school -- specializing in classical realism through a variety of media, including watercolors, pastels and oils -- has been located on Falls Road in Bare Hills. Mrs. Mitchell was faculty chairwoman until retiring this year.
Surrounded by the aromatic atmosphere of paint and turpentine, Mrs. Mitchell went about her work personally guiding and assisting students.
"Though soft-spoken, she took command of a classroom with the effectiveness of a drill sergeant. She always prefaced criticism with a compliment and made sure that students understood the problem and how to fix it," Mrs. Schuler said. "Students had great respect for her, and she brought out the best in each one. Polly was poised and a gentle lady, with the heart and soul of a master."
Mrs. Mitchell's work is found in private, corporate and institutional collections throughout the country. She was a founding member of Seven Women Realists, president of the Maryland Pastel Society and a member of the Charcoal Club and Maryland Portrait Society.
She was also a member of the Ark and the Dove Society and the Colonial Dames of America.
Mrs. Mitchell was a communicant of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter, 130 W. Seminary Ave., Lutherville, where a memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. today.
She is survived by her husband of 50 years, Braxton Dallam Mitchell, a retired publisher; their four sons, Braxton Dallam Mitchell Jr., Walter Byrd Mitchell and Thomas N. Mitchell, all of Towson, and Charles W. Mitchell of Lutherville; her mother, Elizabeth Steuart Thomas Byrd of Roland Park; a sister, Eleanor Byrd Nelson of Towson; and seven grandchildren.