The virtual exhibition, “Fifty Years Later: The Portrayal of the Negro in American Painting,” launched last Tuesday, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the seminal 1964 exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. The innovative website brings a 21st-century lens to the historical exhibit, furthering its discussion on the role African Americans in the history of American Art.

The digital initiative is the result of a collaboration between students, faculty and staff in the Museum, Department of Art History, Digital and Computational Studies Initiative (DCSI) and Special Collections and Archives. Students from Professor Dana Byrd’s spring 2014 class, Race and Visual Representation in American Art, investigated topics and works related to the original exhibition. Cody Stack ’16 designed the website.

The website presents a complete interactive gallery of the original works, as well as current research on the show’s content and context. By digitizing the entire exhibition, the works and their contemporary analysis are free and widely accessible. 

“Something that the digital exhibition provides is a democratic audience,” said Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Curatorial Fellow Sarah Montross, a principal organizer for the project. 

“There’s a political intention behind making it digital,” Montross said.

Originally curated by Museum curator Marvin Sadik, the 1964 exhibition boasted 80 paintings from over 50 museums and private collections across the country, and featured works by artists including Winslow Homer, William Sidney Mount and John Singer Sargent. Sadik went on to become director of the Museum and later became the director of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. from 1969 to 1981. 

At the time, the exhibit generated national acclaim and attracted nearly 20,000 visitors, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller. Organized at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the works merged art history with a political commentary that was radical for the time and place. Considering that Bowdoin was all-male and predominantly white at the time, the exhibit was pioneering in both subject and scope. 

“The idea that this small institution in rural Maine would put together this show with a topic that was really resonant with the Civil Rights Movement was remarkable,” said Montross.

The digital exhibition both hopes to spark new conversations on the depiction of and works by African Americans in art and adds contemporary analysis to the historical exhibit. 

To complement the exhibition, art historian Bridget Cooks, Ph.D. gave a lecture in Kresge last Tuesday. 

Cooks is an associate professor of African American studies and art history at the University of California at Irvine. Her research includes the history of African American art and culture, museum criticism and postcolonial theory. She is the author of many texts, including “Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum,” and has served as museum educator for the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Cooks’ lecture revisited “The Portrayal of the Negro in American Painting” in the context of her research on the history of the struggle for racial equality through visual culture and museum exhibitions. 

Cooks highlighted the unique impact of the works of the 1964 exhibition and she drew attention to an iconic image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. examining the works in the Museum. 

“Looking at King’s face as he looks, speaks and listens forces us to imagine what that moment in 1964 was like,” said Cooks. 

She later shared a quotation from King which described the exhibition as an “invaluable aid to understanding between the races.” 

Elisabeth Strayer ’15, who was also involved in research for the exhibition, hopes the audience immerses itself in the cultural context of 1964.

“I view the online exhibition as a glimpse into Bowdoin’s past and its involvement in the Civil Rights Movement,” said Strayer.

Jess Holley ’15 was also in Professor Byrd’s art history seminar and interned with Sarah Montross at the Museum over the summer. 

“I hope that [the audience] gains another understanding of the presence of African Americans in American art history. Not just as artists, but also how they were being portrayed throughout history,” said Holley.

The modern revisiting of the exhibit forces the audience to consider the concepts of race and representation and their evolution over the past 50 years.

“Through the digital exhibition, we want people to start asking with the distanced lens how things have changed or how things maybe haven’t changed in terms of visual representations of race,” said Montross. 

The virtual exhibition is accessible at