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Sons and Daughters

Ernie Holsendolph '58
Robert M. Rosencrans   '49
James P. Rubin '82
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McGill Portrait Comes Home

By Timothy P. Cross


For the first time in over a quarter century, a portrait of former University President William J. McGill by noted artist Stanley Wyatt '43 will be on public display. Commissioned by the Class of 1943 as gift for the University, the painting was completed in 1974. However, except for a brief exhibition that year, the portrait remained in McGill's possession and out of public view ever since.

It is hardly a conventional academic portrait. Rather than situating his subject in a familiar interior space and choosing subdued tones, Wyatt placed the image of McGill in the lower left quarter of a brilliantly colorful canvas. McGill's visage looks over a seemingly chaotic series of familiar symbols (including the Columbia Lion, Alma Mater, and the University seal). vividly rendered.

McGill, who was president from 1970 to 1980, led Columbia during a period when the University was recovering from the student unrest of the late 1960s and deep financial distress. He was immediately taken by the way the painting captured the mood of his first few years as president. "The portrait creates instantaneous emotional impact on me ... in a way that can only be rationalized by saying that I have lived through a species of hell, and somehow Stan's feelings on canvas capture my feelings," McGill wrote a colleague in 1976.

McGill treasured the painting. "The portrait is very precious to me. I will not let it out of my sight," said McGill, who took it with him when he retired from the University in 1980.

After McGill's death in 1997 at the age of 75, the portrait was returned to Columbia. Beginning this fall, it will be on permanent display in the President's Room of Faculty House. This is something McGill probably expected. "After I am dead, when visitors come to the University, perhaps then this curious portrait of the bedeviled 16th president of Columbia will suggest more than words the character of his responsibilities and the view which the man took of himself," he wrote once.

There will be a reception celebrating the return of the portrait on Tuesday, Oct. 24. at 4:00 p.m., in Faculty House. At the reception, Barnard history professor Robert McCaughey, co-director of the University Seminar on the History of Columbia, will speak on McGill's presidency.

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