On Friday afternoon, over a hundred faculty members, university administrators, and distinguished alumnae gathered to honor Otelia Cromwell, the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. from Yale. President Peter Salovey and Vera Wells ‘71, Director of the Sylvia Ardyn Boone Memorial Project, gave remarks; WFF Chair Claire Bowern and past chair Paula Kavathas also addressed the audience.
In 2017, WFF launched a competition to commission the portrait above and selected the submission from Jennifer Packer. On her portrait of Otelia Cromwell, Jennifer Packer writes, “The task of portraiture for me is about an attempt to match the painting with the kind of energy I observe in an individual’s life, privileging impact rather than facsimile. Reading Otelia’s letters, transcripts, and essays was such a formative part of how I felt ever so slightly nearer to rendering an image of an extraordinary human whose work and legacy endure. I was humbled by the sheer breadth of her dedication to study and compassion toward the education of her students. In her essay “A Question of Motive” she writes, “..I took a solemn vow that whether my pupil reads the classics or not they should get so much joy out of this supplementary reading that, like our friend Oliver, they would boldly ask for ‘more’.” This is a woman who attended, in some capacity, Howard, Smith, Columbia and Yale Universities during her lifetime, and wanted to bestow this love for learning to others. My goal was to make a painting that, in part, could also image the respect I feel for the tasks she set out to achieve, above the difficulty of her circumstances.”