The celebrated international artist Kerry James Marshall has donated a significant portrait to the art collection at the University of Cambridge. The portrait depicts the author and academic Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. The painting marks a historic moment for Marshall and the university, as it becomes only the second work by Marshall to be housed in a public institution in the UK.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., an esteemed literary scholar, professor, and filmmaker, currently serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. Gates, known for his extensive contributions to African-American literature, also received a Paul Mellon Fellowship at Cambridge University in 1973. The University of Cambridge honoured him with an honorary degree in 2022 for his outstanding achievements in his field.
Marshall’s painting, titled “Henry Louis Gates Jr. 2020,” portrays Gates in a windowed room, seated in front of a desk adorned with an Emmy award and a selection of his notable literary works, including “The Signifying Monkey” and “Wonders of the African World.” The concept for the portrait emerged from an image featured in a 2018 exhibition curated by the Black Cantabs Research Society, a student group fostering connections between past and present black scholars at Cambridge. Inspired by historic portraits during his visit to Cambridge in 2019, Gates, in collaboration with his close friend Kerry James Marshall, decided to create this vibrant portrait as a gift to the university.
Kerry James Marshall, acclaimed for exploring social constructs, beauty, and power, reimagined traditional painting styles, incorporating contemporary themes and narratives. At the heart of Marshall’s work is critically examining the invisibility historically imposed upon black bodies in Western art. His contribution to the University of Cambridge further solidifies his status as one of the most significant contemporary artists globally.
Deborah Prentice, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, expressed gratitude for the unique portrait, highlighting its historical significance as Marshall’s first portrait of a living subject. The painting, now on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, is expected to inspire future scholars and thinkers.
Luke Syson, Director and Marlay Curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum, commended the portrait as an extraordinary addition to Cambridge’s collection. He emphasized the painting’s historical and visionary significance, symbolizing the pioneering spirit of both Gates and Marshall in their respective fields.
This generous contribution enriches Cambridge’s art collection and stands as a testament to the enduring connection between scholars, artists, and the university’s legacy.