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Deans and Prima Donnas

Q. As a lapsed Art History major, I love the Botero paintings outside the Dean’s Office, but I also miss the classic portrait of William Carey Jones that used to hang there. I’ve often wondered about the artist. Was he someone well-known? --MB, Berkeley

A. The painting of our first Dean was indeed painted by one of the leading portrait artists of the period, someone for whom sat such august personages as Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and William James.  But that very eminent portrait artist was not a he, but a she. 

Nearly a century ago, law students and alumni of the School of Jurisprudence commissioned an oil portrait of the man who was the first law professor at Berkeley, the first (and only) chairman of the Dept. of Jurisprudence, and the first dean of the law school.  The painting was unveiled on William Carey Jones’s 60th birthday, in an informal ceremony held in the library of the newly-built Boalt Hall.  The Jones portrait first hung on the balcony overlooking the reading room.  “He created the [law] school, and it is fitting that his image look down upon it,” President Benjamin Ide Wheeler noted in his remarks at the dedication.

“With these words,” the Daily Cal reported, “the velvet drapery covering the painting fell away and revealed a remarkable likeness of the honored professor.  The artist, Mrs. C. H. Rieber, painted him in a characteristic pose, one arm akimbo, the other resting on some volumes of law.  On the lower left hand corner of the portrait is the inscription in Latin, ‘A simple man, skilled in law, loved by his pupils.’”

Winifred Smith was born in 1872 into a hardscrabble life in Carson City, Nevada, where her father was an itinerant photographer.  She had an extremely unhappy childhood, from which she escaped at the age of eighteen by marrying Charles Henry Rieber.  Rieber, a member of UC’s Class of 1888, was a school teacher with a passion for philosophy, and when Charles headed east to enter the graduate program at Harvard, Winifred was drawn into the somewhat bohemian world of New England academia.  She supplemented her training at the California School of Design with classes at the Boston School of Fine Arts, and became a skilled artist, specializing in portraiture.                                    

Around 1905 Winifred Rieber was commissioned to paint a group portrait of Harvard’s stellar Philosophy Department: William James, George Herbert Palmer, Hugo Münsterberg, Josiah Royce and George Santayana.  It would prove to be a challenging assignment.  First, Josiah Royce refused her suggestion that he be placed in the middle of the composition, not wanting attention drawn to “poor ugly me.” William James objected to being painted in profile, insisting that one eye carries less authority than two.  Palmer, sensitive about his small stature, objected to being posed seated in a chair, his head far below the level of the others.  Santayana meanwhile egged his colleagues on.  “Now and then,” Rieber’s daughter later reported, “he tossed in a word as a ringmaster might crack a whip to stir up the performers.”  In the end, Professor Santayana cooly announced that he preferred not to be painted with the group, and walked out.

The big problem however was Hugo Münsterberg.  Since he was a rather large figure, Rieber had planned to place him in the rear of the composition.  Münsterberg would have none of it; he insisted on being front and center.  His mother, an artist in Danzig, Germany, had raised her son to have strong aesthetic opinions — which he was not reluctant to express.  The artist and the professor clashed and sparred until, as an unhappy compromise, Rieber at last agreed to paint Münsterberg in the center of the composition, though seated in a chair. 

But the compromise rankled her, along with his rude, hectoring lectures on the basic principles of artistic composition.  The next morning she arose determined to correct the situation.  Flying to her canvas she grabbed a paint rag and simply wiped Professor Münsterberg out of the picture.  Today visitors to Emerson Hall at Harvard can view Winifred Rieber’s revenge.  There for all posterity are portrayed William James, George Herbert Palmer, Josiah Royce — and a conspicuously vacant space.             

We trust William Carey Jones was a more compliant model.

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