Who paints Penn’s legacy portraits in College Hall?

Dear Benny:
How does Penn decide who paints the portraits of University presidents and provosts? Is it up to the President or Provost, or is there a committee who selects a particular artist? Some portraits are casual, while others are more formal—who decides this? And are the portraits always painted at the end of the President’s or Provost’s career?
—Pondering Portraits

Dear P. P.,
For help, we turned to Jackie Jacovini, curator of Penn’s art collection. There are no records pertaining to the commission of these portraits prior to 1980, when her office was founded.

But she was able to shed some light on the practice in recent decades. Since 1980, University presidents and provosts have selected the portrait artist of their choice. They also decide how they want to be portrayed in the painting—and how they want to appear to future generations of Penn students, faculty and staff.

“There is great variation in the formal quality of the portrait, setting, choice of clothing,” says Jacovini. Some administrators choose to pose outside, while others have chosen an interior setting for their portrait.

The portraits are usually—though not always—painted at the end of the subject’s career.

About 40 to 50 of the paintings hang in College Hall, but a few others grace the walls in other University buildings.

“It’s really wonderful to see the gamut of portraits,” says Jacovini. “There are so many I like for different reasons. I think there’s a very nice portrait of [former Provost John] Ludlow.”

The portraits are part of the general University art collection of more than 6,000 paintings, graphics, photographs, sculptures, decorative objects and artifacts acquired over the past 250 years.

For more information, visit Penn’s Art Collection website: http://sceti.library.upenn.edu/PennArt/.

Got a question for Benny? Send it via e-mail to current@pobox.upenn.edu or via regular mail to the Current, 200 Sansom Place East, 3600 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6106.

Originally published on September 17, 2009