History lessons

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Elihu Yale (1649–1721)
Artwork: eighteenth century, artist unknown
Campus Art Collection storage

The first painting I encountered, as inaugural campus art collection registrar, was a portrait of Elihu Yale—probably an eighteenth-century copy of an earlier work. Attached to the frame is a little brass plaque, engraved “Gift of President Eisenhower, 1960.” Why would the president give a portrait of Yale to Yale?
By reviewing files in the university archives and consulting contemporary newspaper accounts, I was able to piece together the story. In December 1959, President Eisenhower made a state visit to India and met with prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, at which time Nehru gifted Eisenhower this portrait of Elihu Yale.

Yale University president A. Whitney Griswold ’29, ’33PhD, heard about the gift, and through diplomatic channels, made it known that the university would be a welcoming home for the painting. President Eisenhower agreed, as did Prime Minister Nehru. The portrait arrived at Yale in April 1960.

Later that year, Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, was visiting in the United States. Gandhi had recently served as president of the Indian National Congress and was six years away from becoming the first female prime minister of India. Yale University decided to award her its prestigious Howland Memorial Prize, and the official unveiling of the Elihu Yale portrait at Woolsey Hall was part of the celebration.

At a time in which Yale is reckoning with its past and asking itself tough questions about memorializing problematic figures, it was fitting that this artwork, with its complex history, was where I began my journey on campus. I wondered what else Yale campus art had in store for me.