Courtesy of Tanya Marcuse

Portraits of dead white men, says Tanya Marcuse ART ’90, look down on students across Yale’s campus. To change this narrative, she and George Miles ’74 GRD ’77 created a photo exhibition titled “12 Portraits: Studies of Women at Yale.”

The virtual exhibition, which features portraits of Yale women, is hosted by Yale Library. It complements a physical display of the collection that opened in the Sterling Memorial Library Memorabilia Room in March. The exhibition commemorates the University-wide celebration of the 50th anniversary of coeducation in Yale college and 150 years of women in the graduate schools.

“The formal power of a diverse group of Yale women challenges, in positive ways, our concept of what Yalies look like and reminds us how coeducation and the slow but steady growth of women faculty and University administrators has transformed Yale for the better,” said George Miles, who co-curated the exhibition and is the curator of the Yale Collection of Western Americana at the Beinecke.

When the University first announced its 50WomenatYale150 initiative in 2018, Marcuse wanted to create 20 large-scale portraits of women at Yale. Marcuse reached out to several Yale professors who connected her with Miles and the Beinecke. After hearing Marcuse’s idea, the Beinecke commissioned 20 portraits from Marcuse, 12 of which are on view in the exhibition.

According to Marcuse, who is now a photography professor and artist in residence at Bard College, Yale’s existing imagery focused on the white, male founders of the institution and failed to express the University’s current demographics. Marcuse said she wanted to create a diverse representation of women at Yale. 

“As Yale as an institution has evolved, the iconography really must evolve as well,” Marcuse said.

For her portraits, Marcuse reached out to several Yale faculty members, including Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler ’87 and poetry professor Claudia Rankine. But with other subjects such as Anna Grace Glaize DIV ’21 and Grace Woodward DIV ’21, she simply followed her inspiration. She stopped people on campus and asked if they were willing to sit for a portrait. Marcuse photographed 40-50 women before selecting the final 12 that are featured in the exhibition.

Marcuse took every portrait in New Haven, photographing at familiar locations such as the Ezra Stiles College courtyard, the Day Missions Reading Room at the Yale Divinity School and even Blue State Coffee.

For her photographs, Marcuse employed techniques used in Yale’s existing formal portraiture. She replicated its formal backdrops, resolute poses and vertical framing to empower her female subjects.

“I wanted to harness the formal language and expressive powers of the painted portraits of men that we see around the university,” Marcuse said. “I used the stillness and seriousness of this convention to grant power and presence to the women in the photographs.”

Marcuse told the News that she pursued this project because she feels connected to Yale women. Marcuse and five other women from her MFA program formed The Birthday Club: an artistic group dedicated to supporting and critiquing each other’s work. And Marcuse’s daughter recently graduated from the University. 

The physical exhibition at Sterling includes documentation of the photography process, including contact sheets, small prints and other archival memorabilia. According to library Director of Communications and Marketing Patricia Carey, this exhibit is now closed to the public because of a recent spike in COVID-19 cases on campus. The exhibition can still be viewed online.

This is not the first time the pandemic introduced challenges. Marcuse said the opening was initially set to include a conversation on female representation between herself and two Yale professors who are included in the project: Ayesha Ramachandran GRD ’08 and Marta Figlerowicz. This was not possible due to public health concerns this spring.

Marcuse and Miles hope to find a permanent home for the collection. According to Miles, the Schwarzman Center may display these portraits next year.

Woodward noted that the project honors Yale’s important female trailblazers, past and future. Programs Manager for Professional Experience at the Yale Sustainable Food Program Jacqueline Munno said that women’s representation is both unifying and empowering.

“The portrait of me is great, but the part I love most is that I see myself in every one of these women,” Munno wrote in an email to the News.

Marcuse’s work has been on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the George Eastman Museum, the Yale University Art Gallery and the Beinecke.

Jordan Fitzgerald |

Correction, Oct. 20: A previous version of the article stated that the exhibit was hosted by the Beinecke Library. Although the exhibit was co-curated by George Miles based on a Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library collection, the exhibit was produced and hosted as a larger Yale Library collaboration.

Jordan Fitzgerald serves as a University editor for the News. She previously edited for WKND and wrote about admissions, financial aid & alumni. She is a senior in Trumbull College majoring in American history.