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Every Portrait Tells a Story


Detailing every portrait on the Hamilton College’s 200-year-old campus is no easy task, but one art history class under the guidance of a courageous professor spent the semester doing just that.

James Bloom, visiting associate professor of art history, taught a course titled “The Portrait from Pharaoh to Facebook” which urged students to look at portraiture from several perspectives. The class culminated in a collaborative digital project that compiled all of the information on each portrait.

“I liked reminding the students of the responsibilities that come with writing history, and I want to believe that it helped ground some of the broader critical issues that we would discuss in class in terms that had immediate application,” Bloom said.

As students soon learned, one of the most challenging aspects of portraiture is finding a stable definition. Does it require likeness? Can a fingerprint be a portrait? Questions like these urge viewers to see portraiture not only through ancient and modern lenses — from Renaissance paintings to modern selfies — but also through a global lens, where likeness is not a priority.

With these consequences in mind, Bloom instructed his students to canvas the campus and note any type of work that could be considered a portrait.

“I think the project helped me confirm my initial understanding of portraiture: that through various mediums and artistic style, portraiture is a platform to commemorate figures generally agreed to have positively influenced the Hamilton community in some way,” Claire Han ’19 said.

Students discovered more than 70 portraits ranging from a self-portrait of Robert Palusky, the John and Anne Fischer Professor of the Fine Arts Emeritus, to a sculpture of Napoleon Bonaparte.

After working closely with Katherine Collett, College archivist, and Katherine Alcauskas, collections curator and exhibitions manager at the Wellin, students compiled data about each portrait’s sitter, artist, and acquisition.

With the help of Doug Higgins, instructional designer at Burke library, students compiled their data on an image-based Wordpress website aptly named Portraits of Hamilton.

“When consolidated in a single, digital space, I suspect they can be understood quite differently—namely, as a collective representation of how the institution chooses to picture its past and the powerful figures who have shaped it,” Bloom said. “I also suspect that that representation looks very different from the people — students, faculty, and staff — who make the campus such a vibrant place today.”

More importantly, the project makes students aware of portraiture and its implications for posterity.

“What I took away from this project was the understanding that portraiture is selective in deciding who gets to be represented and remembered,” Han said. “I am curious about the other, more invisible, individuals who took part in Hamilton’s history, but were not given the same luxury.”

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