About-face at Harvard

A push is on to make the portraits on the walls — white men, almost all — reflect the diverse face of the university today

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By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / November 7, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — The faces peer out, unsmiling, from the gilded frames lining the sea-green walls of the faculty room in Harvard’s historic University Hall. Some are mustachioed, a few bespectacled. They’re dressed in three-piece suits or cloaked in robes, sporting cravats or bow ties.

In this ornate meeting room adorned with crystal chandeliers, Greek columns, and Oriental carpets hang images of Harvard’s most venerable figures — row upon row of stone-faced alumni, professors, and presidents. They are mostly men; all are white.

Of the approximately 750 oil portraits that grace the libraries, dining commons, and undergraduate residences of the nation’s oldest university, roughly 690 were of white men, as of a 2002 inventory by the curator of the university’s portrait collection. Only two portraits, commissioned in the 1980s and ’90s, were of minorities. The remaining portraits were of white women — Radcliffe professors, benefactors’ family members, presidents’ wives.

The portraits, as well as another 450 marble busts, sculptures, prints, and drawings, present an incomplete picture of Harvard that the university is seeking to change.

“There’s a significance to portraiture, in demonstrating to people of all backgrounds that their presence and contribution are appreciated,’’ said Dr. S. Allen Counter, director of The Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, which for eight years has been quietly commissioning portraits of distinguished minorities and women to hang in Harvard’s hallowed halls.

“We simply wish to place portraits of persons of color and others who’ve served Harvard among the panoply of portraits that already exists,’’ Counter said. “We will not displace any portrait, just simply add to them.’’

On Friday, dozens of university officials, professors, and alumni gathered in the junior common room at Lowell House, sipping cider and nibbling on canapés, to celebrate the portrait project’s most recent success: a painting of Dr. Chester Pierce, a 1948 Harvard graduate and longtime professor of psychiatry and education. Pierce, believed to be the first African-American college student to play a football game at an all-white Southern university (Pierce was part of the 1947 Crimson team that played against the University of Virginia), is depicted wearing a red-striped varsity football tie while delivering a lecture in the Ether Dome at Harvard Medical School.

“Portraits really are the evidence of our history,’’ said Diana Eck, a religion professor who is a co-master at Lowell House. “We realize that history goes on, and it’s really important to Harvard to update our image, which has changed so much from the early days.’’

In recent years, nine other new faces — including Archie Epps III, a beloved dean of students who was African-American; Rulan Pian, a professor of music and East Asian languages and civilization who is Chinese-American and served as Harvard’s first minority house master; and Stanley Tambiah, an anthropology professor from Sri Lanka — have popped up alongside renderings of US Senator Charles Sumner and Harvard benefactors Samuel Appleton and Samuel Eliot.

“The real point of it is just to change what future Harvard students see, who arrive thinking, ‘This is what Harvard is,’ ’’ said Harry Lewis, a computer-science professor and former dean of Harvard College. “They can’t tell the difference between what went up last year and what went up 200 years ago.’’

In the Adams House dining hall, a portrait of Eileen Jackson Southern, the first black female professor to receive tenure at Harvard, watches over today’s diverse array of undergraduates as they lunch on pizza, quesadillas, and tater tots.

Near Southern’s portrait, above a piano on a wood-paneled wall, hangs a giant portrait of John Quincy Adams, a United States president, Harvard alumnus, and a member of the family for which the dormitory is named.

The painting of Adams, in a waistcoat and ascot collar, is something students say they expect to see at the 374-year-old college. But the image of Southern — wearing a crisp white blouse and a strand of pearls in front of a bookshelf — is, to many, a pleasant surprise.

“Being a black woman, a minority at Harvard, it’s nice to see someone who looks like me who’s been recognized for making a contribution to the university,’’ said Christen Brown, a sophomore from Ft. Lauderdale majoring in sociology and African-American studies. “It just gives us something to strive for.’’

Groundwork for the minority-portraiture project was laid by a group of minority students who surveyed the portraits hanging in university buildings in 2000. They expressed their concern about the lack of diversity to Sandra Grindlay, then-curator of the university portrait collection.

“They were just looking around and feeling like they could not identify with this institution that had this kind of materials on the walls,’’ said Grindlay, who retired in August. “People tend to think, ‘Oh, the portraits. Nobody looks at them.’ But they do have the power to represent the institution, insofar as when some students look at them, they think, ‘If this is Harvard, what am I doing here?’ ’’

Early efforts to diversify Harvard’s portrait collection focused on prominent women scholars, starting with Helen Maud Cam, a history professor who in 1948 became the first woman to receive tenure at Harvard. Her portrait was hung in the faculty room in 1995. That was followed in 2002 by one of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, an astronomer.

Harvard Law School, which maintains a separate portrait collection, began commissioning portraits of minorities in the 1980s, Grindlay said. But it was not until the Harvard Foundation pushed to honor more minorities and women university-wide, starting in 2002 with a $100,000 grant from the university president’s office, that the art on the walls began to change in a comprehensive way, she said.

The foundation assembled a committee of faculty, students, alumni, and museum staff to select as portrait subjects men and women who have opened Harvard’s doors to diverse groups and served the university with distinction. Under Harvard Foundation guidelines, portrait subjects must have worked for the university for at least 25 years to qualify, Counter said.

The foundation is not the only Harvard group that commissions portraits; individual schools and departments do as well. But the foundation’s selection process can be political, and at times, controversial.

“Frankly, some faculty can say, ‘We’ve been here 25 years and we’re white. Why not us?’ ’’ Counter said.

But not all the new portrait subjects are of minorities. Of the 10 Harvard Foundation portraits that have been hung so far, two are of white men. Fred Jewett, a onetime dean of Harvard College, had encouraged the admissions of minorities to Harvard. And John Monro, also a dean of Harvard College, began a recruitment program for minority students in the 1940s and opened Harvard admissions to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, before leaving his post at Harvard in 1967 to teach at black colleges in the South.

“To give up a powerful career at Harvard to go and work at a minority school is just amazing,’’ Counter said. “Many African-Americans wouldn’t do that.’’

Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of Harvard’s most prominent African-American scholars and now the director of the university’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, called the foundation’s efforts “long overdue.’’ When he arrived at Harvard in 1991 to head the department of African and African American Studies, one of his first tasks was to have Du Bois’s bust carved in marble. Du Bois was the first black scholar to earn a doctorate from Harvard.

“It is important that students know that African-Americans are a fundamental part of Harvard, and that Harvard is a part of us,’’ Gates said.

Gates’s own portrait will be hung next spring, he said, in honor of his 60th birthday and 15-year tenure as chairman of African and African American Studies. It was paid for by a private donor, he said; he has not been at the university long enough for the foundation to commission a portrait of him.

The foundation’s next portrait, scheduled to be unveiled next month, is of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, who in 1665 became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Because no images of him exist from his lifetime, artist Stephen Coit, a former venture capitalist and Harvard alumnus who has painted all of the portraits for the foundation, is creating a depiction based on interviews with Cheeshahteaumuck’s descendents on Martha’s Vineyard, as well as historic and contemporary photographs of Wampanoags.

Five other portraits of minorities are scheduled to be hung over the next two years. Among those Counter hopes will be painted is Venus Whittemore, a slave purchased by Harvard president Benjamin Wadsworth, who listed Whittemore in his 1726 diary as a “negro wench.’’ As with Cheeshahteaumuck, Whittemore’s features will have to be re-created by an artist, because no records have been found of what she looked like.

“It would be justice for Venus, after having served Harvard as a slave, that we construct a portrait of her,’’ Counter said. “We hope to add dignity to someone whose dignity was taken away.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at