Portrait paints a more complete picture of Yale’s history

Student looking at a painting.
Asher Liftin ’21 admiring the new portrait of Edward Bouchet. (Photos: Jessica Smolinski)

Yale junior Kelsey Tamakloe had never felt a strong “spark of emotion,” when she looked at the portraits lining the walls of the dining hall in her residential college, Saybrook College. That recently changed when she saw a new portrait of Yale alumnus Edward Bouchet 1874 B.A., 1876 Ph.D., a noted scientist and educator.

The portrait, by Detroit-based artist Mario Moore ’13 M.F.A., was unveiled in a ceremony at the college on Oct. 9. It will be the first of a person of color to grace the dining hall’s wall when it is permanently installed following the space’s renovation next semester.

With Moore’s portrait, I feel happiness, admiration, and pride. … The portrait not only reflects Yale’s campus today but also reveals Yale’s history,” said Tamakloe, a political science major from Ruston, Louisiana, noting that Bouchet’s story had once largely been forgotten. “I’m glad we could tell it.”

Bouchet — born in 1852 in New Haven, the son of a servant to a Yale student — was valedictorian of his Hopkins Grammar School class in 1870. After earning his Yale College degree, he completed a two-year Ph.D. program in physics at Yale, becoming the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from an American university.

Tamakloe and fellow Saybrugians Annie Roberts ’21 and Ben Weiss ’20 served on a committee established by Head of College Thomas Near that recommended commissioning Bouchet’s portrait. Near, the students, and some of their fellow residents in Saybrook College had been having conversations about how to more fully represent Yale’s history in the dining hall.

Portrait of Yale alumnus Edward Bouchet 1874 B.A., 1876 Ph.D by artist Mario Moore ’13 M.F.A.
Portrait of Yale alumnus Edward Bouchet 1874 B.A., 1876 Ph.D by artist Mario Moore ’13 M.F.A.

In the very Gothic space, we have a collection of portraits that were loaned from the Yale University Art Gallery in 1933 when the college opened,” said Near. “We also have a set of what I call ‘family portraits’ — those who served Saybrook as the heads and deans of the college and their spouses. All of the people pictured are white, which is not representative of Yale’s true history.”

The addition of the Bouchet portrait is just the start of bringing “the narratives of people who have for too long been ignored, overlooked, and marginalized, to come to the surface” to campus spaces, Near said at the unveiling. “In North America there is no history that is not Black history, and this is absolutely true for the history of Yale.”

Keely Orgeman, a resident fellow of Saybrook College who is also the Seymour H. Knox Jr. Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Yale University Art Gallery, recommended Moore for the commission. She and Near made a trip to visit the artist in his studio.

Orgeman said the two “instantly agreed that Mr. Moore would be our top choice to recommend to the students who were involved in the commissioning process.” They were swayed by “his immense talents as an artist who specializes in portraits of Black people, whether historical figures or his friends and family.”

We are very fortunate that he agreed to take on the commission, allowing Saybrook College to represent his work in perpetuity,” she added.

The commission was funded by the President’s Committee on Art in Public Spaces, which advises President Peter Salovey on ways to better represent the diversity of the university through art and other symbolic representations on campus.

Moore’s portrait shows a seated, middle-aged Bouchet during his time as a teacher at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia. On a table besides him sits a portrait of himself as a student at New Haven’s Hopkins Grammar School, and on the wall behind him is his portrait as a young man. Acclaimed artist Rudolph Zallinger ’42 B.F.A., ’71 M.F.A. painted a replica of this portrait of Bouchet, which for decades has hung in the transept of Sterling Memorial Library.

After graduating from Yale, Bouchet taught chemistry and physics for more than 25 years at the School for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, and later taught at schools in Missouri and Virginia before serving from 1908 to 1913 as principal of Lincoln High School in Ohio. He returned to New Haven in poor health, dying in his hometown in 1918.

Learning more about Edward Bouchet was my favorite part of this journey,” Moore said of the project. “The often-quoted part about his life, that he was unable to find a university position after receiving his Ph.D. at Yale and had to take a position instead at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, does not tell the full story. The Institute for Colored Youth was actually one of the best schools of learning for Black youth during that time, and one of the committee members of the school paid for Bouchet to continue his studies at Yale to earn a Ph.D. with an understanding that he would work at the institute upon graduating. It really compelled me to talk about the importance of the institute as part of his journey and wanting that to have a prominent place in the painting. I am truly humbled to be able to create this portrait, which I hope speaks about this incredible man and his earned place at Yale overall and specifically Saybrook College.”

It’s a remarkable portrait,” said Near. “It’s breathtaking. It exceeded all my expectations. It honors a person who really left a big part of himself at this institution, and I’m happy that at Saybrook, we are creating a space where that presence is celebrated.” 

Thomas Near, Head of Saybrook College and Dean Ferentz Lafargue
Thomas Near, Head of Saybrook College and Dean Ferentz Lafargue.

Near noted that Bouchet does not have any affiliation with Saybrook College, as he was a student before the residential college system was established in 1932.

We still don’t know a whole lot about him,” said Near. “But our Saybrook students, with a little bit of mischievousness, decided to adopt him.” One of the college’s entryways was named in honor of Bouchet when the college was renovated two decades ago. 

Since graduating from the Yale School of Art, Moore has been featured in numerous exhibitions and in such publications as The New York Times. His work is included in several public and private collections, including the Detroit Institute of Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem. His paintings are included in the book “Fired Up! Ready to Go! Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art” (2017), and in The Studio Museum in Harlem’s catalog “Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art (2014). He was awarded a Princeton Hodder Fellowship for 2018-2019.

The Bouchet portrait will live temporarily in Biggs House, the Saybrook College Head of College residence, before it is installed at the entry/exit of the dining hall after renovations are completed. Near said its addition there “more clearly represents who we are as a living and learning community, and gives agency for all of us to define what is best about our presence at Yale.” 

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Media Contact

Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324