A portrait of Elihu Yale that depicts the University namesake alongside a dark-complexioned servant will soon be swapped for a less controversial image, following many years of questions about the painting, which has hung in the seat of power at University for over a century.
The portrait, which rests above the mantle in the ornate Corporation Room in Woodbridge Hall, depicts Elihu Yale with a young servant at his feet. Citing perennial controversy regarding the perceived racist overtones of the portrait, University Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer said the painting will soon be removed and replaced with a portrait of Elihu without any servants. University President Richard Levin has an office in Woodbridge Hall, and the Yale Corporation holds its official meetings in the Corporation Room.
Although Elihu Yale was not himself a slave owner, over the past several decades students have spoken out about the portrait’s implication of slavery. There are two other portraits of Elihu with black servants in the Yale collection.
“Since the portrait is confusing without the explanation [that Elihu Yale did not own slaves], I have decided it would be prudent to exchange that portrait of Elihu to another one in the University’s collection,” Lorimer said.
The replacement portrait will be cleaned and prepared for installation by the end of the semester, she said. The mantelpiece in which the painting is displayed was built around the painting, and the moldings that hold it in place must be adjusted before a new portrait can be installed.
The depictions of servants and slaves in portraits of their employers and owners can be shocking to modern audiences, but they were common in portraits of that era, said John Marciari, curator for early European art at the Yale University Art Gallery. The Woodbridge Hall painting is far from unique, he said.
“It’s a very common portrait,” Marciari said. “It’s not as though Yale is the only one who did this, by any means.”
Kurt Schmoke ’71, the first black senior fellow of the Yale Corporation and a former mayor of Baltimore, said the University’s history should be kept in perspective. While he did not personally find the portrait offensive, he said he is glad it is being taken down.
“This [issue] comes up periodically, so I am glad in order to remove any controversy about it the painting is going to be replaced with something else,” he said.
Elihu was a man of a somewhat unsavory disposition and a “domineering, opinionated, [and] aggressive” personality, according to a biography written by Hiram Bingham III, class of 1898. He lived most of his life in India and at one time served as governor of a colony operated by the East India Company. He gained immortality when, in 1718, he donated books and goods valued at around 800 pounds — equal to about $200,000 today — to the Collegiate School, which would later be named Yale College in his honor.
Given the small market for Elihu Yale portraits, most of the extant paintings of the donor belong to the University, Marciari said. There are seven Elihu Yale portraits at the University, one of which belongs to the Elizabethan Club, he said.
“No one else in the world wants these things, so they’ve all found their way here,” he said.
Elihu is hardly the most controversial figure with regard to slavery in the University’s history, emeritus history professor Gaddis Smith ’54 said. A residential college is named after John Calhoun, class of 1804, who was one of the nation’s most outspoken proponents of slavery. Some of the stained-glass windows in the college’s dining hall depict slaves picking cotton.
Timothy Dwight, Jonathan Edwards, Ezra Stiles, Trumbull, Berkeley and Silliman colleges are also named after slave owners, and Samuel Morse was a noted supporter of slavery. But Smith pointed out that many of the country’s founding fathers were also proponents of slavery.
Schmoke said instead of creating controversy over the University’s past, the community should look forward.
“You can’t write away the history, you just have to look to build a better future,” he said.