Filed Under Art, Museums, Race

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
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 traditions of portraiture to make bold claims and highlight important absences. From George Washington onward, every president has commissioned a portrait of himself, with the year 2018 marking the 50th year of America’s Presidents at the National Portrait Gallery. Creator: Maya Omori Date: March 2019
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 very densely many white men were staring down at a room of party goers…was off-putting.” Creator: Maya Omori Date: March 2019


 Installing the Portrait of Ruth J. Simmons
Installing the Portrait of Ruth J. Simmons The portrait of Ruth J. Simmons joined the ranks of the 35 portraits in Sayles Hall on January 20, 2016. According to Robert Emlen, former University Curator, “This collection is a visual record of the history of the University, but we also commission and collect these portraits in order to honor the people who have built and led the University. That is a very distinguished tradition that we maintain.” Source: Creator: Frank Mullin | Brown University Date: 1/20/2016
Nicholas Brown Jr.
Nicholas Brown Jr. Painted by Chester Harding in 1836, this portrait of Nicholas Brown Jr. depicts the University’s namesake and early benefactor. Source: Brown University Portrait Collection Creator: Chester Harding Date: 1836
 Thomas Tisch
Thomas Tisch Tisch graduated from Brown in 1976, was elected to the Board of Trustees in 2002, and became the 20th chancellor of the university in 2007. He is the managing partner of Four Partners, an investment firm in New York City. Matthew Watson, a NYC-based artist, painted this unconventional portrait. Source: Brown University Portrait Collection Creator: Matthew Watson Date: 2016
Ruth J. Simmons
Ruth J. Simmons TIME Magazine named Ruth J. Simmons America’s best college president in 2011 while she was serving as Brown’s 18th president. She has won numerous leadership and teaching awards, and Brown named the Lower Campus after her to honor her significant contributions to the university. Simmons chose Steven Polson to paint her portrait, who is known for his portraits of institutional, government, and corporate leaders. Source: Brown University Portrait Collection Creator: Steven Polson Date: 2015


84 Waterman St. Providence, RI 02912 | Walk inside Sayles Hall through two sets of doors.


Maya Omori, “Repainting Tradition: Sayles Hall Portraits,” Rhode Tour, accessed June 17, 2024,