Eliphalet Nott is on the move again. Well, at least the grand portrait of Union’s longtime president is.
Painted by the renowned artist Henry Inman and completed in 1844, the College’s largest portrait has shuttled among several campus buildings with space large enough to host the larger-than-life artwork. It also has traveled across the country for special exhibits, including the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Its home since 1995 has been in the iconic building that bears Nott’s name. However, with the Nott Memorial undergoing repairs to a leaky roof for up to three months, the portrait’s caretakers did not want to risk damage to the painting.
A crew from the Williamstown Art Conservation Center recently made the 50-mile drive to campus to collect the portrait for temporary storage.
Removing an 8-foot-by-5-foot portrait weighing nearly 100 pounds is no simple feat. As staff from Schaffer Library and the Mandeville Gallery nervously looked on, the crew delicately detached the painting from the series of bolts and wires holding it in place.
Carefully maneuvering the portrait on its side, the crew then navigated the steep steps of the Nott before gently placing it inside a van for the trip to Williamstown, Mass. The operation mesmerized even the contractors assembling the scaffolding for the repair work to the Nott’s ceiling.
“It was so nerve-wracking to watch,” said College Librarian Frances Maloy.
The oil on canvas portrait will get some R&R at the conservation center, on the campus of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, an internationally noted art museum and research institution. It may also get the spa treatment to remove grime that accumulated on the bottom edge of its ornate, gilt wooden frame, and to repair UV damage that caused certain pigments to fade and a darkening of the varnish that covers the painting.
“This often can cause areas of previous repair to stand out more to the naked eye,” said Sarah Mottalini, curatorial assistant of Art Collections and Exhibitions at the Mandeville Gallery. “For example, I noticed that Nott's left shoulder appeared to have had some pigment loss - either from a change in the original painting by the artist, or perhaps an area that was repaired over the nearly two centuries that the painting has been in existence.”
Nott was Union’s president for 62 years, the longest tenure of any American college president. Commissioned from the artist in 1839 for $1,000 by alumni, the portrait depicts Nott in academic robes standing by a window with a view of the historic campus.
Alumni raised only $300 toward the bill, however, and when Inman died in 1846, Nott himself paid the balance of the bill to the artist’s destitute widow and children.
Originally hung in Old Chapel, the painting was relocated to the Nott Memorial in 1904. It briefly returned to Old Chapel and then moved back to the Nott for several decades before ending up in the first floor reading room of Schaffer Library in 1983. It came home to the Nott in 1995 following the landmark’s extensive multi-million dollar restoration completed in time for the College’s bicentennial.
The Nott portrait is not the only Inman work owned by the College. A painting of George Washington Doane, Class of 1818, hangs in the President’s House. Doane was an accomplished hymnologist and wrote hymns popular in his day. He also became the Episcopalian Bishop of New Jersey.