We’re thrilled to finally reveal the exciting new portrait that’s joining our collection. World-renowned American contemporary artist Kerry James Marshall is donating a portrait of author, scholar and award-wining filmmaker Henry Louis ‘Skip’ Gates to the University of Cambridge. The Fitzwilliam Museum is only the second institution in the UK to acquire a work by Marshall, who is widely regarded as one of the most important artists working today. Unveiled earlier today, the painting is now on free public display in our Gallery 4.
Marshall is best known for his figurative paintings that often reference representational painting styles across centuries of art history. In a way, the artist is in conversation with the past—reinterpreting and updating compositions, elements and themes which he recontextualises in a contemporary setting. His depictions of Black bodies create what Marshall refers to as a ‘counter-archive’, addressing the invisibility of people of colour in Western art history and creating new narratives for his figures.
‘Marshall is unquestionably one of the very greatest artists working today, and his generous gift of his powerful, subtly characterised portrait of Skip Gates, radical and influential thinker and academic, cements the enduring connection Gates feels so strongly to the University of Cambridge, where he first studied fifty years ago. It’s a painting that truly celebrates past, present and future.’
— Luke Syson, Director and Marlay Curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum
Aside from his own self-portraits, Marshall’s painting of ‘Skip’ Gates is his first-ever portrait of a living, rather than imagined, sitter. Among many things, Gates is a literary critic, historian and currently the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts. Gates’ connection to Cambridge and the University began half a century ago in 1973, when he became the first African American student to be awarded a Paul Mellon Fellowship at Cambridge University where he completed a PhD in English. Gates was awarded an honorary degree—one of the University’s highest accolades—in 2022.
The idea for the portrait first came about when an image of Gates was included in a 2018 exhibition curated by the Black Cantabs Research Society, a student group set up in 2015 to create a link between past black scholars, present students, and prospective students. Then, in spring of 2019, Clare College hung a photographic portrait of the acclaimed intellectual in its Graduate Common Room. When visiting Cambridge for the unveiling of that photograph on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Mellon Fellowship, Gates was inspired by the historic, richly coloured portraits which hang in Old Court. Following a discussion with Kerry James Marshall, a close friend, the two decided to create a colour portrait of Gates which would be gifted to the University.
‘This is a very important donation - not only as this is the first portrait of a living person that Marshall, one of the most significant artists of our time, has ever created but also that it depicts one of our remarkable alumni and honorary graduates, half a century after he first came to study here in 1973. We hope this portrait, soon to be on display at the Fitzwilliam, will inspire the next generation of thinkers and academics.’
— Deborah Prentice, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge.
‘Henry Louis Gates Jr’ will be on display in Gallery 4 from Tuesday 3 October 2023.
Image credit: Kerry James Marshall, Henry Louis Gates Jr, 2020. Acrylic on PVC panel in artist's frame © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, London; Photo: Anna Arca
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