What's his name: Portrait of Hamilton hangs at Union

Publication Date

Long before he conquered Broadway, Alexander Hamilton hung around Union’s campus.

In 1875, the grandson of the Founding Father gifted an elegant oil painting of his prominent grandfather to the College.

The grandson, also named Alexander Hamilton, wrote President Eliphalet Nott Potter to express his desire to have the portrait permanently preserved.

“I beg you to accept for Union College, the accompanying original portrait of my grandfather...” Hamilton wrote on Dec. 8, 1875, to Potter, grandson of Union’s long-serving president, Eliphalet Nott.

Alexander Hamilton

In choosing Union, Hamilton noted the friendship between his grandfather and Nott, who, as a young Presbyterian pastor, delivered a eulogy when the statesman was mortally wounded in a famous pistol duel with U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr in July 1804.

Nott’s eulogy catapulted him to national prominence and ultimately helped secure the presidency of Union, a position he would hold for a record 62 years.

“It seemed to me eminently proper that it should be confided to the care of Union College…whose late distinguished President was the warm friend and most eloquent Eulogist of my Grandfather,” the younger Hamilton wrote.

In October 1876, trustees officially accepted the portrait, promising it would be “carefully preserved by Union College as one of her most precious treasures.”

Yet apparently few were aware of the identity of the subject of the portrait that hung anonymously on campus. In 1927, the College received a letter asking “for a photograph of the portrait of Alexander Hamilton.” Officials were perplexed. No one could recall such a portrait.

A lengthy and tedious search of the files uncovered the letter from Hamilton’s grandson, confirming Union was indeed in possession of a portrait of one of the nation’s architects.

“Fortunately this picture has not been lost but has been hanging for some years in the President’s Office, being one of a few which are unidentified,” according to the January 1928 issue of Union Alumni Monthly.

“But with the suggestion and this very definite record, there is no doubt that this is the Hamilton portrait and that the College possesses a valuable painting of one of America’s greatest men.”

Initially, there was also some confusion over the artist. For years, the portrait was mistakenly attributed to John Vanderlyn in the Union College Portrait Index; the 1950 index listed the artist as unknown.

And Hamilton’s letter mistakenly stated the portrait was “painted from life shortly before my grandfather’s death.”

It was subsequently determined to have been completed by Ezra Ames from a plaster bust in 1810, six years after Hamilton’s death.

The painting has appeared in several books about Hamilton, including Ron Chernow’s acclaimed 2004 biography that was adapted into Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway production.

It is also featured in “Hamilton’s America,” a PBS documentary about the play. The show is streaming through Nov. 18.

Since 2007, the painting has been displayed in the President’s House. It is on loan through December from the Union College Permanent Collection for an exhibit at the Albany Institute of History and Art, “Spotlight: Alexander Hamilton.”

The painting can also be seen in an upcoming WMHT documentary, “Hamilton's Albany.” The program airs Sunday, Dec. 4, at 10 and 10:45 p.m.; and Thursday, Dec. 8, at 7:30, 10 and 10:45 p.m.

“Union College's portrait of a mature Alexander Hamilton, beautifully rendered, and set against a dramatic, dark background, remains one of our most precious treasures,” said Sarah Mottalini, curatorial assistant, Art Collections and Exhibitions, “and we are delighted to be able to share it with a wider audience.”