Repainting Tradition: Sayles Hall Portraits

“When we read history, it is merely a record of abstract names.’ - Lord Palmerston

Lord Palmerston, one of the early supporters of the National Portrait Gallery, felt that the Gallery would act as a source of inspiration by providing visual examples of upstanding citizens for current visitors to emulate the great. Sayles Hall works in a similar manner in that it is a display of the greats Brown deems worthy of emulating. Nicole Wholean, Brown’s Campus Curator, explained that “institutional portraiture is a tool in establishing an institution’s identity and for recognizing notable contributions to the institution...anyone who’s exhibited in Sayles has made a lasting imprint on this University through their legacy and contribution.”

Look around you. It is likely quiet, the air still. Under the added gaze of tall ceiling beams, you are being stared at by four walls of past presidents, trustees, and chancellors. By including Sayles Hall as a stop on admissions tours and hosting various university-sponsored events, it is clear that Brown takes pride in the portraits hung on these walls. But are there repercussions from displaying these portraits with such density? While there are many types of microaggressions, click the videos to learn about racial microaggressions.

Most of the portraits here follow the European tradition of portraiture. A main figure is composed, sitting or standing in the foreground wearing a suit and a tight smile. An object representing his or her contributions is visible in the background, usually placed in front of velvet curtains or a bookshelf. Assemblages of mostly worthy men reflect an attempt to bring prestige to the university by referencing its colonial origins and European roots. According to the Brown University Office of the Curator, less than 1 in 10 portraits on campus are of women, though this is changing due to increased awareness and dialogue about representation.

Admissions tours highlight one of the largest and most conventional portraits, the painting of Nicholas Brown Jr. on the far back right wall, joking that he donated $5,000 USD in 1804 ($96,000 in today’s currency) to have the university named after him.

Now try to identify one portrait that’s a bit unconventional. On the right wall facing the stage, the portrait of Thomas Tisch may stand out for its photorealistic style, in addition to its outdoor setting and for including more than one figure.

Now find the portrait of Ruth J. Simmons, the first black president of an Ivy League institution. Her portrait is one of the most conventional - she wears a robe and is placed directly in the center.

Taking these three portraits together, who gets to establish tradition? And who gets to work within it? What’s on the line for those who have more to risk by not bending to tradition?


What is a racial microaggression?
Education Professor David Rangel defines the concept of racial microaggression and suggests how Sayles Hall could act as one for students, faculty, and staff. ~ Creator: Maya Omori ~ Date: March 2019
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Kehinde Wiley's unconventional portrait of President Obama
Portraiture in institutions can work within existing parameters to make a statement about the institution of portraiture itself. President Obama’s presidential portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. utilizes preexisting...
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Interview with Nicole Wholean, Campus Curator
Nicole Wholean, Campus Curator, describes the portraits in the Portrait Room of the Faculty Club as “Historic in nature” -- “All of the portraits were of white men and the room was very traditional…[they] added a touch of formality but they were also...
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84 Waterman St. Providence, RI 02912 ~ Walk inside Sayles Hall through two sets of doors.