Harvard Art Controversies

Law School Portraits

Reginald Lewis

In the Lewis International Law Center hang two portraits of Reginald F. Lewis '68, whose gift to the School was commemorated by naming the ILS building after him. In the lobby of the Lewis International Law Center is a traditional portrait, a large framed photograph. In the ILS Reading Room is a non-traditional portrait by Vincent D. Smith, a noted African-American artist whose modernist folk style has broad appeal. The portrait on the right was commissioned by the family, who specifically requested Smith as the artist. It is Smith's first portrait. Imagine the issues raised for the School by the second portrait.

Roger Taney

The School has two portraits of Roger Taney, fifth Chief Justice of the United States. Because of the subject, they are controversial. Taney was born of a wealthy slave-owning family of tobacco farmers. A private, scholarly man, Taney graduated first in his class from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania in 1795 at the age of eighteen. He received his early legal training in the office of Judge Jeremiah Chase of Annapolis Maryland. On 7 January, 1806, he married Anne Phoebe Charlton Key, only daughter of John Ross Key, and sister of Francis Scott Key, a law student with Taney at Annapolis, who afterwards wrote the Star-Spangled Banner. Upon his father's death, Taney freed his slaves. As a Maryland litigator in the 1820s, Taney had declared, "Slavery is a blot on our national character, and every real lover of freedom confidently hopes that it will be effectually, though it must be gradually, wiped away."

The portrait of the younger Taney - which hangs outside the library's computer lab - was painted by the noted artist Henry Inman during Taney's tenure as Attorney General. As Andrew Jackson's attorney general, Taney helped close down the Second Bank of the United States, bringing him in direct conflict with powerful leaders of the Senate, including Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. Despite their opposition, in 1837 Jackson rewarded Taney by naming him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Taney is remembered and respected for such opinions as Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge, Abelman v. Booth, and Ex Parte Merryman. That began to change in 1857, when the Supreme Court faced the case of Dred Scott, a slave who claimed his freedom as a result of being taken by his master to a free state. As the author of the Supreme Court's majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sanford, Taney struck down the Missouri Compromise and ruled that the Constitution did not recognize the citizenship of an African American who had been born a slave. This decision sparked bitter opposition from northern politicians and a heated defense from the South and was one of the most important events leading up to the Civil War. This single opinion cast a shadow over Taney's distinguished legal career and his personal reputation for integrity.

Harvard's older portrait was painted by Emanuel Leutze, whose most famous work might be Washington Crossing the Delaware. Leutze's portrait - which hangs in the Caspersen Room - catches Taney at the end of his career, two years after Dred Scott and five years before his death. In his separate opinion in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), the abortion case that reaffirmed Roe in 1992, Justice Scalia recalled the portrait that hangs in the Caspersen Room.

  • “There comes vividly to mind a portrait by Emanuel Leutze that hangs in the Harvard Law School: Roger Brooke Taney, painted in 1859, the 82d year of his life, the 24th of his Chief Justiceship, the second after his opinion in Dred Scott. He is all in black, sitting in a shadowed red armchair, left hand resting upon a pad of paper in his lap, right hand hanging limply, almost lifelessly, beside the inner arm of the chair. He sits facing the viewer, and staring straight out. There seems to be on his face, and in his deep set eyes, an expression of profound sadness and disillusionment. Perhaps he always looked that way, even when dwelling upon the happiest of thoughts. But those of us who know how the lustre of his great Chief Justiceship came to be eclipsed by Dred Scott cannot help believing that he had that case--its already apparent consequences for the Court, and its soon to be played out consequences for the Nation--burning on his mind. I expect that two years earlier he, too, had thought himself "call[ing] the contending sides of national controversy to end their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution."
  • The Law School has many portraits that depict individuals who do not have the most sterling reputations, e.g., Lord Jeffries. Because the school owns and displays a portrait of a given individual is not an endorsement. Rather they are depictions of historical figures who have had some impact on our legal heritage -- for good or ill. Taney certainly had an impact on the American legal, social and cultural landscape and the comparison of Harvard's two portraits is visually interesting.

    Order No. 11

    A member of the Law School faculty loaned four prints by George Caleb Bingham to the School and they were displayed in a common area in one of our office buildings. The presence of these prints upset staff and the prints were removed.

    George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) was one of the leading American genre painters of the mid-nineteenth century. Bingham studied three months at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and later in life spent three years at the renowned Düsseldorf Academy. He ran for office several times, and was elected to the state legislature in 1848. In 1862 he was appointed state treasurer for a two-year term. In 1875, he was named state adjutant general. In 1877 he was invited to the faculty at the University of Missouri in Columbia as professor of art. He was an artist, politician, and a Union general.

    Bingham’s fame rests on fewer than twenty pictures that describe aspects of life on what was then the nation's frontier, the Mississippi River valley and his home state of Missouri. Bingham’s best known paintings fall into two topic categories: activity on the river - including such works as Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845), which hangs in the Met, The Jolly Flatboatmen (1846) at the Terra, Raftsmen Playing Cards (1847) - and frontier politics - including County Election (1852), Stump Speaking (1854) and Verdict of the People (1855). His most famous painting, Order No. 11, is the one that provoked the strongest reaction.

    Order No. 11 was a Civil War army command, issued by Union General Thomas Ewing shortly after Quantrill’s famous raid on Lawrence. Ewing issued the order to rid Missouri's border counties of southern sympathizers harboring such raiders. Order No. 11 did this by requiring everyone in the affected area to leave their homes. Those of proven loyalty could take refuge in a military station and receive certificates for their produce left behind, which was confiscated or destroyed. This scorched earth policy was extreme but effective in denying border raiders sustenance and support.

    Bingham, though a Union general, objected to the order. His painting, Order No. 11, might also have been extreme but was indeed effective, years later denying Ewing the governorship of Ohio. For more on Bingham, see Jonathan Weinberg, The Artist and the Politician - George Caleb Bingham, Art in America, Oct 2000.

    Royall Family Portrait

    The first group portrait painted in North America, the portrait of Isaac Royall, Jr., and his family, the Law School's most valuable work of art, hangs in the Caspersen Room. American Colonial portrait painter Robert Feke made his reputation with this work. The face of the child in the picture was added by an unknown hand after the death of the child painted by Feke. Isaac Royall, Sr., owned a sugar cane plantation on the island of Antigua, where he became very wealthy by trading in sugar, rum, and slaves. Royall's house in Medford was considered "the grandest house in America" and included extensive slave quarters. Isaac Royall, Jr., was a frequent and lavish entertainer, a successful real estate investor, and held several public offices and military positions. He professed to be a Patriot but his business ties were to to powerful Loyalist families and the English crown. He fled Medford on the eve of the American Revolution and died in England. In 1779, Royall bequeathed land to Harvard that was sold after the War to endow the Isaac Royall professorship. The establishment of the professorship inspired the founding of the Harvard Law School, whose insignia includes the three sheaves of wheat from the Royall family coat of arms. Should Harvard Law School hang the portrait of a Tory slaveowner in such a prominent place? Should Harvard even keep such a portrait?

    Harkness Commons

    Harkness Commons was designed by Walter Gropius and The Architects' Collaborative in 1950. Despite being described as "Not one of Gropius's best buildings by any means, . . ." by Dennis Sharp in A Visual History of Twentieth-Century Architecture (p.183), the Harvard Graduate Center has been a work regularly studied by students of architecture. Though often the subject of criticism and complaints by the law students who are the primary tenants, it has strong supporters within the architectural community. 

    When it opened, Harkness contained many works of art designed specifically for the building by friends of Gropius. $40,000 from an anonymous donor allowed Gropius to select several ex-Bauhaus colleagues as collaborators: Herbert Bayer designed a large mural pattern of square tiles, a transparent screen at the head of the Commons ramp, and a mural in shades of green in the southwest corner of the second floor; Josef Albers designed an abstract pattern using the brick module at the back of the Commons fireplace; Jean Arp cut out a series of free shapes of plywood and placed them on opposite sides of the dining room.

    Joan Miro had prepared a large mural for the dining room. Food damage caused Harvard to transfer this to the Museum of Modern Art and replace it with the ceramic copy now on display along the north wall of the second floor. Gyorgy Kepes designed a world map for the Wheeler Room. When some of the material deteriorated with age and fell off and the parts thus exposed became darkened with time, the Law School and the artist agreed not to have the map restored. Richard Lippold's World Tree, which originally stood in the quadrangle in front of the Commons, was moved to the other side of the quadrangle to make room for a beach volleyball court/skating rink closer to the Commons.

    A major renovation of "the Hark" in 2004 was successful on almost every front, but it was not kind to the art. Bayer's mural and Arp's wood sculptures were sent to the Fogg Museum. His tiled wall that faced the ramp and Albers fireplace were covered over. Also covered over is the relief wall created by Constantin Nivola for the lobby of the International Legal Studies building.

    Attempts to renovate "the Hark" must take account of the Massachusetts Art Preservation Act, used recently by David Phillips to keep his installation in Eastport Park from being moved or altered. Renovation must also take into account the opinions of the historic preservation community, who have indicated that efforts would be made to add Harkness Commons to the National Register of Historic Places if Harvard is not sensitive to the historic nature of the Hark.

    For a brief overview of the national historic preservation program, visit the web site of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

    The Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) is the state historic preservation office and is authorized by M.G.L. Chapter 9, Section 26-27C to identify, evaluate and protect the Commonwealth's important historic and archaeological resources. The MHC administers state and federal preservation programs in Massachusetts, including assisting communities with listing properties in the National Register of Historic Places and implementing Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Here are the regulations establishing the National Register of Historic Places (36 CFR 60) and Determinations of Eligibility for Inclusion in the National Register (36 CFR 63)

    The principle agency concerned with any renovation of Harkness, however, is the Cambridge Historical Commission (CHC), a department of the City of Cambridge, established in 1963 to administer the city’s historic districts, to survey Cambridge’s architecture and publish its findings, and to research and mark historic sites and buildings. Commission staff now administer two historic and three neighborhood conservation districts, as well as seventeen city landmarks, and twenty-six properties covered by preservation easements . The Commission also reviews demolition permit applications for all buildings over fifty years old. Preservation grants are offered to low- and moderate-income home-owners; technical assistance on preservation issues is provided; historic paint color consultations are available; and an active publication program is maintained. The Commission is responsible for the restoration of some historic public areas, such as Longfellow Park and the Revolutionary-era Fort Washington. Historic and neighborhood conservation district commissions meet monthly, with agendas and meeting notices posted in the Commission and City Clerk’s offices, and published in the Cambridge Chronicle. The ordinances under which the Historical Commission and the neighborhood conservation district commissions operate were adopted to protect and preserve Cambridge's significant buildings and neighborhoods. A significant building is one which, according to Chapter 2.78 of the City Code, "constitute(s) or reflect(s) distinctive features of the architectural, cultural, political, economic or social history of the City." The enforcement of these ordinances promotes the public welfare by "preserving the resources of the City and making the City a more attractive and desirable place in which to live."

    Rothko Murals

    The strange stories of Mark Rothko's mural projects are legends of contemporary art. Rothko accepted two large-scale mural commissions: a1958-1959 project for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York City and a 1961-1962 commission for Harvard University. However, neither series of panels can be seen in the environments for which they were created. In 1959, Rothko repudiated the contract for the 600 square feet of paintings for the Four Seasons. The six Harvard murals were hung in the dining room of Harvard's Holyoke Center, but not for long. The murals suffered from tears, stains, graffiti, and severe color shifts caused by exposure to sunlight and instability in the artist's materials. By August 1979, Harvard Art Museums staff had removed them all from Holyoke Center. See Mark Rothko's Harvard Murals, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Art Museums, 1988. Did Harvard do all it could have to protect this art? A third set of murals, those now installed in the Rothko Chapel of the de Menil collection in Houston, also suffered damage from light.

    Lowell House Bells

    The Lowell House bells, a collection of 17 Russian bells, were given by Charles Crane as a gift to the house in 1930. The bells originally came from the St. Danilov Monastery in Moscow but were purchased from the USSR government by American enthusiasts anxious to save at least one characteristic Russian zvon from the anti-religious melting pots of the Soviets. Now the monastery wants them back. The status of the bells was investigated by a joint committee from Harvard and Russia, an agreement was signed between Harvard and the Danilov Monestery, and the bells have begun to return to Russia.

    The Lowell House Bells Homepage

    St. Daniel's Monastery Homepage

    Blagovest Bells

    At the Museums

    No large museum can avoid aquiring fakes and the Fogg is no exception. The film, Masterpiece or Forgery: the Story of Elmyr de Hory, includes the tale of the Fogg's acquisition of a drawing titled A Lady With Flowers and Pomegranates believed to be a Matisse. It was an Elmyr.

    Harvard art museums have been questioned for their possession of Nazi-spoliated art and for displaying illicitly imported antiquities.

    From December 9, 1999 - October 1, 2001, an exhibition of rarely seen sculptures and artifacts from the Peabody Museum collections, Heads and Tales: Adornments from Africa, featured as a spectacular centerpiece a Ngady aMwaash mask of the Kuba acquired in the early 20th century. The exhibition received a positive review by Sunanda K. Sanyal in the Winter 2001 issue of African Arts but the African Reparations Movement considers the work to be stolen cultural property. ARM was the creation of Bernie Grant, a controversial, Jamaican-born MP who died in April 2000. Since his death, the ARM web site has not been updated.

    The Peabody Museum has the largest collection of Native American human remains after the Smithsonian. With the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990, museums are required to inventory their holdings of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and materials of cultural patrimony found on federal or tribal land. Procedures for repatriating these items are also laid out by NAGPRA. Going home (Harvard Magazine, September-October 1998) and Pecos Repatriation (Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology, 1999) recount the largest reburial of Native American remains in this country's history. See also Barbara Isaac, An Epimethean View of the Future at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, vol. 7 (3), Fall/Winter 1995.

    In Blessing for a Long Time: The Sacred Pole of the Omaha Tribe (University of Nebraska Press, 1997), Robin Ridington and Dennis Hastings adopt the conventions of Omaha oral narratives to tell the story of the Umon'hon'ti, a symbol of tribal unity. The tribe relinquished the Pole to Harvard's Peabody Museum in 1888 under severe pressure from the U.S. Government. The Sacred Pole was finally returned by the museum in 1989.

    A Teikweidi totem pole removed from Cape Fox Village by the Harriman Expedition in 1899 was requested by the Teikweidi of the Saanya Kwaan and returned by the Peabody in 2001. The Cape Fox Corporation donated a new cedar tree and the Peabody commissioned a master carver to create a replacement pole.