By Jill Palmer
An original portrait of Huntingdon’s founder, William Smith, will be on display in the Juniata College Museum of Art until Dec. 9. This portrait was painted by Gilbert Stuart, who is famous for doing portraits of other significant historical figures such as George Washington.
The portrait is on loan from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. The Museum Director for the Juniata Museum of Art, Kathryn Blake, said, “I received a call from someone in the community who was working on the 250th anniversary of Huntingdon celebration, saying that they had secured a digital image of the portrait of William Smith from the museum that owns the painting. They were looking for a place to display the image, and I thought we should just go ahead and ask to borrow the real thing. I happened to know someone who works at Crystal Bridges that I had worked with in Phoenix, so I made some connections and asked if they would consider a loan request. I wasn’t sure if they would consider it because we are a very small institution compared to them, but they did. I couldn’t secure it in time for the celebrations in June, unfortunately, but I was able to get it for the 3 month period we have it now.
Stuart painted this portrait of Smith between 1801 and1802. Stuart had a studio in Philadelphia, where Smith also lived, and so they both moved in many of the same circles.
Blake said, “It’s not at all surprising that towards the end of his life William Smith would want to be painted by Gilbert Stuart. Gilbert Stuart did many portraits of people we would consider to be founders of our country. What’s interesting about this portrait is it’s not actually portrait orientation but landscape orientation, which you don’t see so frequently among Stuart’s work. This is because of what William Smith wanted to include as attributes or objects that carried meaning about his life.”
For this exhibition, Blake removed key portraits around Juniata to hang in the gallery along with Stuart’s portrait of Smith. Blake said, “We have this spectacular portrait on loan to us, but that couldn’t be the only thing in the gallery, so it got me thinking about portraits on campus. We have a lot of them here at Juniata, but I’m not convinced that people pay a lot of attention to them. I thought we could use this as an opportunity to think about portraits and whether we want them spread all over campus and how to spark more interest to them in some way. Wherever I took down a portrait, in its place I put up a panel asking if anybody remembered who was here or any details about them. My goal was to disrupt the visual landscape a bit. We walk by things all the time, and the more we pass by them the less we see them. Someone said to me that the portraits look a lot nicer in the gallery, and I believe it’s just because we’ve changed the context.”
The Juniata College Museum of Art will have Smith’s portrait on display until Dec. 9. Students are encouraged to take some time out of their day to come down to the museum and learn a little about Huntingdon’s history and think about the other portraits on display here at Juniata.