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Iowa State's Portrait Legacy

Posted on 01/22/2021 at 02:00 PM by Lynette Pohlman

During the 1930s, in the depths of the Great Depression, Iowa State College was commissioning portraits at a remarkable pace. Commissioned to commemorate the college’s heritage and legacies, the portraits portrayed Iowa State presidents, deans, accomplished faculty, and heralded alumni by well-known regional and national artists. Portrait commissions had all but dried up by the end of World War II. In the 1980s, with the responsibility of expanding the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums inherited a large number of portraits that had been commissioned by the early Campus Art Committee in partnership with the Alumni Association and the Office of the President. As University Museums delved into the University Archives and Special Collections, we discovered many of these campus portraits were missing. Often the paintings had been innocently appropriated by faculty and staff, as the art had hung for so long in their offices that people felt a sense of ownership. It was an exercise in diplomacy recovering them. Many other campus portraits were rescued from closets where they had long gathered dust.

In some cases, works of art had been sold with little understanding of their cultural value to Iowa State’s history. Routinely the university would hold periodic sales to divest itself of old office furniture and other equipment. The fact that these portraits rightfully belonged to Iowa State as works of art commissioned for the college did not outweigh the reality—the art was no longer ours.

Beginning in the 1990s, Iowa State actively resumed commissioning formal portraits of deans, selected department chairs, and accomplished faculty as a means of celebrating, commemorating, and honoring Iowa State’s cultural legacy. The colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Business, and Engineering, as well as the former College of Home Economics, have portraits of all their deans. The Department of Animal Science has portraits of all their chairs, and the Department of Agronomy has recently undertaken a project to commission portraits of their past administrators. As of 2020 a steady commissioning of portraits of distinguished faculty and alumni is taking place all across campus, including the ongoing Faces of Iowa State project. In total, the Campus Portrait Collection celebrates the most accomplished of our campus leaders and preserves their academic legacies through the fine arts.

ABOVE: Genevieve Fisher (1879–1974), 1943, by Frank I. Johnson (Swedish-American, 1879–1952). Oil on canvas. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U82.126 

Genevieve Fisher received her bachelor’s degree in 1914 and her master’s degree in 1927 from Columbia University. Fisher became dean of the Division of Home Economics in 1927. While dean, she reorganized the Department of Household Administration into three departments: Home Management, Child Development, and Household Equipment. Iowa State was the first institution of its kind to introduce a course in household equipment. Fisher was also active in the campaign for passage of the Smith-Hughes Bill. After the bill was passed, Fisher helped to draft the first federal plan for vocational education in Iowa.

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