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The Portraits of Hamilton website is the result of a semester-long project completed in the spring of 2019 by the students of Art History 230: The Portrait from Pharaoh to Facebook, the goal of which was to compile a more or less comprehensive survey of the portraits currently displayed on Hamilton’s campus. The work of creating this inventory was undertaken collectively by groups of four or five students and consisted of three main phases. First, we canvassed the campus and recorded basic data about the portraits found; next, we researched each piece in depth using the College’s archival resources and the Wellin Museum’s registrarial files; and finally, we parsed the collected information in order to draft the content found here.

Throughout the semester, as we explored the genre of portraiture, we discovered that describing what exactly a portrait is and does is a surprisingly difficult task. Definitions of the word initially seem simple enough (take, for example, Merriam Webster’s: “a pictorial representation of a person usually showing the face”), but with roots that arguably extend to the origins of humanity, portraits—both individually and as a genre—hold significance beyond their status as art objects or their aesthetic value.

Portraits of Hamilton was not specifically concerned with exploring portraiture’s ontological status, but the complex ways in which the genre function semiotically and sociologically are key to any insights that this project might yield. Individually, the portraits here serve to construct the identities of their particular sitters, but they also negotiate and communicate meaning in less obvious ways. In an age where the advent of photography has in many ways democratized visual representation, the genre of formal portraiture—once available only to the wealthy and elite—retains a degree of cachet and continues to signal importance and influence. For an example that illustrates portraiture’s contemporary relevance, we need look no further than Kehinde Wiley’s and Amy Sherald’s portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, which now hang in the National Portrait Gallery. Upon the paintings’ unveiling in 2018, critics celebrated them for disrupting the conventions of presidential portraiture. The power of Wiley’s and Sherald’s innovations, however, relies on the artists’ willingness to engage with the tropes of the genre they subvert.

This website documents some of the changing ways members of the Hamilton community have understood their place and that of the College in the wider world. Samuel Kirkland’s founding of the school as a seminary for the local Oneida, the College’s eighteenth-century focus on the education of Presbyterian ministers and missionaries, M. Woolsey Stryker’s secularizing efforts, and the eventual founding of Kirkland College all appear in the visual history that the Portraits of Hamilton together comprise. So, while this project and its results are largely biographic and historical, with research on the artists and sitters of each piece, they are also historiographic. The works included in Portraits of Hamilton reflect the way in which Hamilton College has and continues to understand and communicate its institutional identity. At a time when many institutions are reexamining their legacies and determining how to move forward in light of them, Portraits of Hamilton invites us to reflect upon, and question, how Hamilton’s history has been conveyed until now. Of the thousands who have called Hamilton home over its two-hundred-year history, who has been deemed worthy of hanging on its walls, and why? And perhaps more importantly we might ask, who does not feature in this visual history?

As the Hamilton community continues to write and rewrite its history, we might more carefully consider how and where we locate historical value. Could we find room among the Roots and the Bristols for Chan Lai-Sun, who upon his arrival at Hamilton in 1846 became the first Chinese student to enroll in an American college? Or the women of Kirkland College, whose pioneering spirit shaped the college that Hamilton is today? Or Robert Moses ’56, whose activism helped propel the momentum of the civil rights movement?

— Phoebe Duke-Mosier ’19

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