Professor portraits at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Universities have been creating and displaying portraits of their professors for centuries; these are mostly grand formal portraits corresponding to the status (at that time) of the institution and person. This tradition goes back to the founding of the first Dutch universities in the late 16th and early 17th century. However, none of these collections is complete; due to changing historical and financial circumstances, creating portraits was more important at some times than at others.

The first portraits of founders and professors of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam were not made until 40 years after the university was founded in 1880. Two portraits came from the estate of university founder Abraham Kuyper (1837 – 1920), one of himself and one of his good friend and fellow professor F.L. Rutgers (1836 – 1917). In 1921 a committee was formed to commemorate Professor Herman Bavinck (1854 – 1921) after his death. More funds than expected were raised, so they had a portrait painted as well, by the artist Louis Goudman, who painted a number of the early portraits. In the following years, the portraits of Willem Geesink (1854 – 1929) and Jan Woltjer (1849 – 1917) were also commissioned by a committee and donated to the university.

Kuyper, A. - Rutgers, FL
prof. dr. A. Kuyper (1837–1920) en prof. dr. F.L. Rutgers (1836-1917)

The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam did not provide the initiative for the first portraits; they were all donations. There was no clear policy about portraits for professors, and this was the case in later years too. When a professor went into retirement (at the age of 70), an ad hoc committee usually organised a farewell reception, where they would also present a portrait. This meant there were often no portraits made of professors who left the university or died at an earlier age.

In the 1950s, the Civitasraad (the former representative council of the VU academic community) did some catching up and commissioned posthumous portraits of several VU professors such as Willem Zevenbergen (1884 – 1925) and Biesterveld (1863 – 1908). In the 1970s, a portrait gallery was set up in the Aula of the new main building. The question of whether a portrait should be created or not was otherwise left to the faculties and the ad hoc committees. This has resulted in situations such as all of the deans of the Faculty of Behavioural and Movement Sciences having portraits, but very few of the deans of the Faculty of Science. Moreover, some faculties chose (and still choose) to have important persons portrayed in photographs and not in paintings.

In 1999, all female professors (numbering around 30) were photographed and exhibited; these portraits were not included in the collection, but were presented to the portrait subjects. The major Kopstukken (‘heads’) exhibition in 2010 featured just one painted portrait of a female professor, namely Gezina van der Molen (1898 – 1978). This prompted some more catching up, and portraits were commissioned of female professors at the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Religion and Theology. These were created by art photographer Annaleen Louwes. Portraits are still produced of rectors, and of the deans of some faculties. 

prof. dr. G.H.J. van der Molen (1892- 1978) , prof. mr. E. van Sliedregt (1971)

As the university grows in size, and as professors’ careers become more flexible (very few remain at the same university for 40 years), the portrait gallery in the traditional sense of the term becomes open to discussion. After all, who should now be considered for a portrait? And in what way? Is it even still appropriate nowadays to portray only individuals, despite their involvement in collective research activities?