Hidden Portraits at Brown

Portraits are often overlooked in the daily life of a Brown student, tucked away in the halls of old buildings or hung above eye-level in Sayles Hall. But must a portrait be framed? A portrait can also be an object, a scene, a story, or a collection of items.

These are some of the hidden portraits at Brown. They are illustrations of our university, sometimes framed but often not, that give us a peek into the history of the institution. I hope this tour will serve as a starting place for you to uncover many more hidden portraits through encouraging the practice of historical thinking and creative place-making.

Just as portraiture is an institution with a long history and strict canon, Brown is also such an institution. But this tour will uncover how even within an institution, change is possible. Traditions can, and should, be challenged. How Brown articulates and displays its history is crucial to aiding or hurting its community members’ identity and sense of place. While history is never neutral and historical accuracy is elusive, being intentional in the methods of the presentation of figures who played a role in the shaping of the University is of utmost importance in facilitating a sense of belonging.


Curated by Brown University student Maya Omori in "Portraiture: Pre-histories of the Selfie" (Fall 2018) and serves as her capstone project.

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…

“To Henry Paget Esq. for 29 Days Work of Pero”

Pero, slave. Job, Native American. Mingow, free African. Have you heard about these men on the admissions tour? These individuals were three of at least four slave laborers who built University Hall, then called the College Edifice for the College of…

(Still) Waiting for Washington

“On the President’s landing, he was welcomed by a federal discharge of Cannon, and the Ringing of Bells. The Concourse of People was prodigious. The Procession was conducted with great Decorum, and exceeded anything of the Kind before exhibited in…

Stretching Towards Equality: The Slavery Memorial

As you stand in front of the memorial, you see a ball and chain sunk into the ground. Walk a few steps closer, and you’ll see your reflection staring back at you. Text is etched lightly onto the surface on the nearby stone, and you likely must squint…

Campus Myths and Implicit Bias: The Van Wickle Gates

What’s the worst that can happen if you walk under the Gates other than for invocation and commencement? Well, it depends on your gender. Legend has it that if you’re a woman and you walk through more than twice, you will not get married. But if…

No Label, No Learning: Busts in the John Hay Library

Ann Carter Brown, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Gardner Colby, Albert Harkness, William Shakespeare, Elisha Benjamin Andrews, Julius Caesar! Notice the range of individuals staring down at you. The busts range from historical figures in…

“The Freedom to be Womanly” at Pembroke College

For 100+ years, students have been discussing the history and role of women in this exact seminar room. Imagine writing on the chalkboard. Feel the history in the dark wood chairs, revel in the gaze of the figures lining the ceiling. Each frieze…

What’s Hidden Under the Laurentide

Under the Laurentide (granite, water | 2014) Renowned artist and architect Maya Lin is “constantly exploring and revealing aspects of the natural world [such as] places that are hidden beneath the surface of the water…” Lin has always been…
Special thanks to those who helped uncover hidden portraits through audio/video interviews: David E. Rangel, Nicole Wholean, Anthony Bogues, Jennifer Betts, Drew Walker, and Sheila Bonde.

Special thanks to those who brought history to life through guiding me through Brown's immensely rich archives: Jennifer Betts, Raymond Butti, and Mary Murphy.

Special thanks to Ron Potvin for providing me with a platform to share these stories with the public through RhodeTour because we all are interpreters of the past and agents of change for the future.

And last but not least, a very special thanks to my advisor and mentor Professor Holly Shaffer (History of Art & Architecture) for her continuous support and enthusiasm throughout this process. She inspires me to constantly draw meaning from place and interrogate history to challenge institutions for the better.