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Best Face Forward

Painting a new picture of Harvard

By Alexander B. Fabry, Crimson Staff Writer

Though Harry Potter may get into his common room by saying “Balderdash” or “flibbertigibbet” and walking past a swinging portrait of a Fat Lady, Harvard’s common rooms are accessed by the tap of an ID card, and Harvard’s portraits remain fixed to their walls. But for those who know when and how to look, Harvard’s impressive portrait collection, like the paintings of Hogwarts, contains more than meets the eye—including historical controversies.

According to Sandra Grindlay, curator of the Harvard University Portrait Collection, the University’s extensive collection contains more than 1,200 works, with even more portraits of subjects lacking a direct connection to Harvard in the general museum holdings. “It’s Harvard’s original collection,” Grindlay says. “The first portrait was acquired in 1670.”

But the painted eyes of a thousand commemorated individuals looking down on us from the walls of dining halls, libraries, and common rooms may do more than chronicle the university’s history. “They construct a male Harvard, an important Harvard, an ancient Harvard,” historian and University Professor Laurel T. Ulrich says. “Harvard has done so little to acknowledge its broader history.”

Over the past few years, there has been a concerted effort to bring more diversity to Harvard’s portrait collection.



In 2002, then-President Lawrence H. Summers established the Minority Portrait Project, endowed with $100,000 and the mission to reflect Harvard’s diversity in the works that hang on its walls.

Since then, the initiative has produced a dozen portraits of distinguished Harvard affiliates from minority backgrounds. “This is not about compensation,” Ulrich says. “This is not raising the self-esteem of people. This is about a more responsible history.”



LAMONT’S GENTLE GIANT

One of the most visible of these recently commissioned works is the gentle portrait of senior admissions officer David L. Evans, which hangs in the entrance hall of Lamont Library. The portrait was painted by Stephen E. Coit ’71 and unveiled in 2005. “I tried to portray Evans in a role that is characteristic of his role at Harvard. He engages with a great many people and is a great listener,” Coit says. “So I painted him listening.”

Coit has been producing portraits for the Minority Portrait Project since 2004, and looks to complete another 25 before he’s done. Coit, who studied math and computer science at Harvard, initially intended to pursue a career in tech-based venture capital but gave up halfway through the Internet bubble to become a painter. “I just really wanted to paint,” he says.

Grindlay praises Coit’s work, saying, “He throws his whole heart and soul into every commission.”

“I left in 1971 feeling a great disconnection from Harvard,” Coit says. “This [portraiture] has made me feel a lot more connected to the institution.” Grindlay focuses on this same power of connection. “For me these portraits are a special thing that makes history more real,” she says. “It can be a very effective connection. It can be used very successfully as a way of understanding the institution.”



RIGHTING THE BALANCE

The history constructed by these portraits hasn’t always been a comfortable one. From his days at Harvard, Coit recalls the “white faces with one or two hands, the kind of portraits I remember from Lowell dining room.” A comparable dearth of racial diversity still reigns among the portraits of the Harvard Faculty Room in University Hall, the grand meeting chamber of Harvard’s governing body.

While three prominent portraits of Harvard women have been added to the room, the space is dominated by a superb portrait of Abbott Lawrence Lowell, class of 1877, painted by John Singer Sargent. Lowell, who served as president of Harvard for 24 years, is now infamous for his bigoted attitudes toward African-Americans, Jews, homosexuals, and other minorities. “In the stories of racial minorities of all kinds, ethnic minorities, Harvard has a history of overt discrimination,” Ulrich says.

With regard to the hidden history of women at Harvard, which stretches far past when they were first admitted to Harvard Yard in 1972, Grindlay notes that although only three of the more than two dozen portraits in the Faculty Room are of women, many of them have been painted by female artists.

“There is the notion that we can’t change the past, we can’t rewrite history,” Ulrich says. “Of course, the history that’s there was written by someone, and these are historical constructions. We constantly readdress the history of our own lives by the way we live.”

Grindlay, however, offers a slightly different take. “Do you change history or do you present it as it is and try to do better?” she says. “You try to right the balance.”



SILENT TYPES

The next portrait in the Minority Portrait Project portrays former dean John Monro, will be unveiled at Phillip Brooks House on Oct. 16, and, on Nov. 10, a new portrait of President Drew Faust, also painted by Coit, will make its debut at the Schlessinger Library. “Drew hasn’t seen it yet,” Grindlay says. “It’s really great. It’s very, very successful.”

Though Harvard’s portraits are often embroiled in debates over gender and race, the collection also represents a continuous history of American portraiture and contains some stunning examples of the genre. There is, for instance, the exquisite portrait of John Quincy Adams that sits near the tray disposal in Adams dining hall. It is a work by Gilbert Stuart, perhaps the most famous American portrait artist, and was finished by Thomas Scully. Grindlay calls it “a very major work of American art.” Another Singer Sargent, of Charles W. Eliot, rests in Eliot Dining Hall, and the Winthrop House Library contains the largest private collection of John S. Copley portraits.

But with unfortunate frequency, Harvard’s portraits are ignored by Harvard students; they create an ambience but are rarely examined. When Widener Library was renovated in 2004-2005, the relevance of the portraits that once lined the walls of the circulation room was questioned. “The students didn’t want them back,” Grindlay says.

This is something the Minority Portrait Initiative is trying to change. “The first time we unveiled one of the new portraits, I could tell the students were very moved by seeing this,” she adds. “In terms of how students see themselves and see themselves fitting in, the portraits play a major role.”

—Staff writer Alexander B. Fabry can be reached at fabry@fas.harvard.edu.

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Visual Arts