Mastering the portrait

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Photo by Sharon Yin.

In the Branford College dining hall, a portrait hanging on the back wall displays, with expressive brushstrokes, former Master Steven Smith clad in a suit and round glasses, wearing a tie with an upside-down depiction of his wife’s face staring back.

This past January, Smith announced he would be leaving his post at the head of the college and instead continue at Yale with increased focus on his role as a political science professor and co-director of the new Yale Center for Study of Representative Institutions. In preparation for Smith to step down from the post, a search committee worked to find a replacement — and his administrative assistant made arrangements for a second, more traditional portrait to adorn the dining hall walls in commemoration of Smith’s 15-year tenure.

In Branford, Smith is only the second master to have a portrait painted, the college’s Senior Administrative Assistant Alicia Heaney, who organized the effort to have the new portrait made, said. Other colleges such as Trumbull and Davenport have a set of portraits that hang in their dining halls. In Ezra Stiles there are only enlarged digital photographs of the Masters — not paintings.

Across the 12 residential colleges, no uniform structure exists for the process of creating portraits for college masters. Still, all colleges display at least some portraits of past masters in their dining halls and common rooms to commemorate the administrative work the masters have done and the impact they have had on students’ lives.

“He served for 15 years — the second longest serving master — and was so beloved by the students that there really needed to be a tribute to [him],” Heaney said. “The masters are the heartbeat of this institution and there should be a historical artifact commemorating them.”

Of the 10 current masters interviewed, one already has an official completed portrait hanging in his college, and responsibility for commissioning the portraits varies from college to college. Pierson College Dean Amerigo Fabbri commissioned the portrait for current Master Harvey Goldblatt, now hanging in the Pierson dining hall. In Jonathan Edwards, former Master Gary Haller’s portrait was commissioned by his administrative assistant at the end of his tenure, but it has yet to be completed.

Acting Master of Calhoun College Amy Hungerford wrote in an email that she does not intend to have one created at all.

Michael Boyce ’11, who was president of Branford College Council last year, described the painting of Smith that is already hanging in the Branford dining hall as a “cool piece of Branford lore” that he said is rumored to have replaced a painting students stole years before.

Boyce added that he had been told that the artist was a Yalie who became famous for his paintings of fish.

“It’s a weird portrait, as portraits go,” Boyce said.

Getting funding for the new portrait was the “main issue,” which faces anyone who wishes to have a portrait of a master made, Heaney said. She added that she wished the University would provide the necessary support.

Instead, Heaney said she contacted the Branford fellows to apply for money for a portrait to be made of Smith.

“One of the problems is that the cost of these portraits is incredibly large,” she said. “The University should look at funding for these. They get very expensive.”

After the Branford College fellowship agreed to fund the creation of Smith’s painting, the several-month creation of the portrait began.

Once the process is underway, typically a college master selects his or her own artist. But Smith said he already had a painter in mind — Steven DiGiovanni, who teaches at a community college art program that his wife directs, and who had already completed several paintings of Smith’s colleagues in the political science department.

DiGiovanni met Smith at Branford College and took a variety of photos of him, in different outfits, posing both at his office and in his home. Using these images, he worked on the second portrait that Smith said he did not want to describe before its unveiling. Upon Smith’s request, the artist made a few slight alterations after he finished.

Smith said the portrait is now being framed and is set to be hung in the Branford dining hall.

“At the beginning, even though I wanted them to do the portrait, I was a little uneasy. Something hanging in the dining hall has a kind of permanence about it,” Smith said, adding that ultimately he was pleased with the artist’s work.

Colleges unveil their paintings in a variety of ways. Timothy Dwight College revealed the portrait of former Master Robert Thompson last year at a ceremony including live music, food and speeches from the master’s friends. Thompson’s portrait is the largest of its kind, due to his unprecedented 32-year tenure, according to Nick Eftathiou ’14, who attended the unveiling.

The unveiling of Smith’s portrait has yet to be scheduled and Heaney said that the office has not yet planned anything for the event.

Comments

  • DCHeretic

    During my visits to Saybrook, I have never seen a portrait of James Thomas who served as Master during the early-to-mid 1990s. Was a portrait of Thomas ever made?

  • theAvenger

    Little known fact: It was, but it’s in the Saybrook Library.

  • cyalie

    *alterations, not altercations.

  • InterestedInBiology

    Fact: That is not a portrait of Steven B. Smith. It is a portrait of Dwight K. Schrute.