University News

Simmons portrait hung in Sayles

First African-American woman, one of five women represented in hall

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2016

A portrait of former President Ruth Simmons was installed in Sayles Hall over winter break, joining 35 other historic faces of benefactors, professors, chancellors and presidents on the walls. The oil portrait by New York-based artist Steven Polson features Simmons in her brown and red academic robe, beefeater hat, gold chain and pendant.

The University’s tradition of collecting portraits of its notable leaders dates back almost two centuries, said Robert Emlen, the University curator. Sayles Hall serves as a “visual history of Brown,” he added.

The portrait is not only significant because it is the first of an African American woman in Sayles Hall, but also because it features one of only five women and one of just three people of color honored with a portrait.

“We want to make sure that the room increasingly looks like the campus does,” Emlen said. “It doesn’t change what happened 250 years ago, but it’s nice to walk in there now and see greater diversity on the walls because it tells us also what Brown is about nowadays.”

“White men have constituted the presidency and former chancellors of the university, with a few exceptions,” said David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98, professor of social science, anthropology and Italian Studies and former provost during the last five years of Simmons’ presidency. “The strong image of Ruth Simmons will show how far Brown has come and how Brown has changed over the years,” he added.

Simmons was “a force of nature” and her tenure was characterized by key structural growth, Kertzer said. Highlights of her fundraising campaign, “Boldly Brown,” include expanding the faculty by 100 members and initiating major building projects such as the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center, Nelson Fitness Center, Metcalf Laboratories and the first medical building in the Jewelry District.

Still, Simmons’ agenda “wasn’t just adding faculty and facilities, but paying very serious attention to strengthening the quality of the university,” Kertzer said.

The Corporation began discussions about adding a portrait of Simmons to the University’s collection of 317 when she stepped down from the presidency in 2012. By the end of 2014, Emlen had sent Simmons portfolios of artists to consider for the commission. Simmons selected Polson as the artist and met with him to discuss the painting in the spring of 2015.

Polson then took a series of photographs of Simmons in her robe and cap and began the two-month long process of painting her. Together, Simmons and Polson decided the portrait would be “graphically stronger in its simplicity” with a plain background and would be more dignified without a smile, Polson said.

Simmons decided to wear the academic garb in the portrait to show her serious commitment to the University’s traditions, Polson said. Polson crafted the portrait with the help of several photos, preferring to paint without the use of a computer to digitally create the colors he envisioned, he said.

President Christina Paxson P’19 announced in a Jan. 20 press release that she will host Simmons at a reception during her next campus visit to recognize the installation of her portrait.

Correction: A previous version of this article had a caption on the photo saying that former President Ruth Simmons is the 37th person to have her portrait hung in Sayles Hall, and that she is the first woman to have her portrait hung in Sayles. In fact, she is the 36th person and the first African-American woman to have her portrait hung in Sayles. The Herald regrets the error.