The Princeton University Art Museum now has on display painted portraits of rich, white men.

"Picturing Power: Capitalism, Democracy, and American Portraiture" tracks the changing ways the leaders of American industry envisioned themselves for two centuries.

"It's a great story," said curator Karl Kusserow. "I've long been interested in how institutions used the genre of portraiture to advance and construct a vision of themselves that serves their own ends. Whether they wish it or not, those portraits can be read as as reflections of the life of the institution and of the world around it."

The exhibition -- and the newly published book by Kusserow with a slightly different title ("Picturing Power: Portraiture and its Uses in the New York Chamber of Commerce") -- examines the portraits commissioned and collected by the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York between 1772 and 1972.

At its peak, the New York chamber was the most powerful member organization in the country. Its first commissioned portrait, in 1772, was of its founder, Cadwallader Colden, a British citizen and royal governor of New York. He is portrayed as a bit of a dandy, with a powdered wig, a decorative sword, dressed in a bright red suit.

Assuming down-to-earth pose

Subsequent commissions tried to distance chamber members from the trappings of aristocratic privilege and portray them as men of the people.

"Instead of a portrait of an individual that is highly elaborated, which looks aggrandizing to the viewer, you have William H. Vanderbilt looking like a country parson," said Kusserow. "And yet he was one of the richest, most powerful men in the country."

The exhibit is broken up into six chronological segments, examining the state of the chamber through its own, sometimes distorted, painted mirror. The nature of portraiture did not always sit easily with the goals of American industry.

In the late 19th century, the predominant business model in America shifted from the lone proprietary entrepreneur to the corporation, where risk is absorbed among many. The calm strength of a classical portrait, once connoting an individual's stability and strength, no longer reflected how business actually operated.

"The agency of individuals was gradually being diluted by this new corporate mode of organization," said Kusserow.

Acquisitions and mergers

Consciously or not, the chamber reacted by cramming up to 150 portraits onto nearly every vertical surface of its great hall, built specifically for the collection in the chamber's building on Liberty Street in Manhattan.

The thick swarm of paintings featured several non-members, such as Thomas Edison and Samuel Morse, included to improve the stature of the others by proximity. It was nearly impossible to consider one portrait apart from its neighbors.

"If you think what a portrait fundamentally does, which is offer a communion with another human presence -- if you lose sight of the individual because there are so many of them crowding the individual out, it really subverts the whole role of portraiture," said Kusserow.

The New York Chamber of Commerce went through a few more changes of approach and aesthetic until it dropped the whole matter of portraiture altogether. It no longer keeps its historic collection. Most of the paintings were bought by Credit Suisse, an international financial services company.


"Picturing Power" runs until June 30.