HENRY LOUIS GATES JR., is a towering figure in the field of African American history and literature. He is closely associated with Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., where he built his academic career and currently serves as Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. Gates also has longstanding ties to the University of Cambridge in the UK. In 1973, he was the first African American awarded a Paul Mellon Fellowship at Cambridge. Only 22 years old at the time, he went on to earn a Ph.D., in English from the institution.

Half a century later, Cambridge has recognized Gates’s historic achievement, exceptional contributions to his field, and longstanding engagement with the university. In 2022, he received an honorary degree from Cambridge. Further enshrining the renowned American scholar’s connection to the British institution, a portrait of Gates was unveiled on Oct. 2, and now hangs in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge.


KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Henry Louis Gates Jr,” 2020 (acrylic on PVC panel in artist’s frame, 46 5/8 x 41 x 3 3/4 inches / 118.3 x 104.3 x 9.5 cm). | © Kerry James Marshall, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, London. Photo by Anna Arca


None other than Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall painted the portrait. A leading artist of his generation, Marshall is one of the most prominent artists working today and good friends with Gates.

Marshall donated the painting to the University of Cambridge. The portrait is the first Marshall has made of a living subject (not including self-portraits) and only the second work by the artist acquired by a public institution in the UK. (“Untitled (“London Bridge)” 2017 by Marshall is in the collection of the Tate.)

“I would like to extend my sincere thanks to both Kerry James Marshall and Skip Gates for donating this unique portrait to our collection,” Deborah Prentice, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said in a statement. “On behalf of 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.”

“We hope this portrait, soon to be on display at the Fitzwilliam, will inspire the next generation of thinkers and academics.”
— Cambridge Vice-Chancellor Deborah Prentice

IN 2021, CULTURE TYPE REPORTED Marshall made a portrait of Gates. The artist had the painting framed at The Conservation Center in Chicago and the center shared the project on its website. At the time, Gates did not respond to requests for comment about the work, whether the painting was a private commission or an official portrait intended for display at a public institution. By email, Marshall said, “At some point, this fall there will be a formal announcement. Until then, there will be no information made available.”

Two years later, the Gates portrait has debuted at Cambridge. The institution explained how the project came about:

    The idea for the portrait was initiated 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 Gates 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.

Both Marshall and Gates were at Cambridge when the portrait was unveiled and each expressed admiration for the other’s profound talents. Marshall called Gates the “W.E.B. Du Bois of our generation,” according to The Art Newspaper. In turn, Gates said Marshall was “a living genius” whose paintings “have redefined our understanding of Blackness as being multiplicitous.”


From left, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Kerry James Marshall stand before the portrait Marshall made of Gates. | Photo by Mike Jones


Marshall’s portrait is a particularly meaningful gesture. Gates, who sits on the board of trustees of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and hosts the long-running PBS program “Finding Your Roots,” has also formally recognized Marshall.

In 2019, Gates presented Marshall with Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Medal in recognition of his transformative contributions to the field of African American art. In September, a couple of weeks before the portrait unveiling, Gates spoke at a Washington National Cathedral ceremony celebrating the debut of stained-glass windows Marshall designed for the Washington, D.C., church. The social justice-themed installation replaced windows dedicated to Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. At Cambridge, Gates said of the artist: “What I render historically, he renders visually.”

“What I render historically, [Kerry James Marshall] renders visually.”
— Henry Louis Gates Jr.

“Kerry James Marshall’s portrait of Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., is an extraordinary new acquisition for Cambridge and the Fitzwilliam Museum. 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,” Fitzwilliam Museum Director Luke Syson said in a statement.

“It’s a painting that truly celebrates past, present and future, both by its manner of painting—referencing historic portraits of scholars and their studies, and because of the way both Gates and Marshall have been so pioneering in their fields. I offer heartfelt thanks to both painter and sitter for contributing this work to our collection. We are enormously proud to exhibit it at the Fitzwilliam.”

The portrait “Henry Louis Gates Jr.” (2020) is on view in Gallery 4 at the Fitzwilliam Museum, where admission is free. The display coincides with “Black Atlantic: Power, People, Resistance” (Sept. 8, 2023-Jan. 7, 2024). Through art and objects, the exhibition examines the role of Cambridge in the transatlantic slave trade. CT


FIND MORE about Kerry James Marshall’s portrait of Henry Louis Gates Jr., on Culture Type


“Kerry James Marshall: The Complete Prints: 1976–2022” is forthcoming in November. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” accompanied Kerry James Marshall’s 35-year traveling retrospective. Henry Louis Gates has authored numerous books, including and “The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism,” “Colored People: A Memoir,” “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow,” and “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song.” He co-edited the recent volume “Who’s Black and Why?: A Hidden Chapter from the Eighteenth-Century Invention of Race.” Gates also co-edited the 11-volume series “The Image of the Black in Western Art.” (Find more about the series here.) Also consider “The Obama Portraits,” which explores in-depth the making of the portraits of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively.


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