On the second floor of Hubbard Hall—what former President Barry Mills jokingly refers to as the “Dead Presidents Hall”—13 of the College’s past presidents look down on students and passersby from framed portraits on the walls. On May 18, a 14th will join them, as Mills’ portrait is hung next to that of his predecessor, Robert Edwards.

 The only people who have seen the portrait so far are Mills, his wife Karen and the two artists who produced it—photographer Lucia Prosperi and painter Warren Prosperi. It will be unveiled to the public at a reception in the Shannon Room on May 17. 

Mills’ portrait will depart from several traditional features of the College’s previous presidential portraits. Unlike Bowdoin’s last seven presidents, Mills is not wearing academic dress. Though almost all of the past portraits (except Edwards’) feature no distinct background, Mills’ includes a setting of particular importance to him during his tenure at the College: the lobby of the Walker Art Building, home to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, which he helped renovate and expand from 2005 to 2007. 

“As president of Bowdoin, the transformation of the Museum was pretty special, and it’s a pretty special space,” Mills said. “There’s a door in that space that looks out over the Quad, and the Quad is probably the most special place to me on campus. [Having the portrait set] in that spot with a door that opens a vista onto the Quad says a lot about how I thought about the College.”

 The painting is done in the Prosperis’ preferred tradition of Optical Naturalism, which is based on how the human visual system perceives light.

Mills chose the Prosperis as the artists for his portrait after receiving a recommendation from a friend who was familiar with the large mural and 20-plus portraits they produced for Massachusetts General Hospital. 

The Prosperis have painted several college presidential portraits before—including Adele Simmons of Hampshire College, Vartan Gregorian of Brown University and five College of the Holy Cross presidents—as well as numerous privately and publicly commissioned pieces. Their work has been shown in a number of museums across the country, including the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Their painting “Epiphany III” is part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. 

“I looked at their work, and I was particularly impressed because I was looking for someone who was going to do this in a rather traditional, classical style,” said Mills. “Warren paints sort of in the style of Sargent and Zorn and that attracted me, so I met with them out in their studio outside Boston, and we hit it off.”

 Mills said that although he felt comfortable with the Prosperis, the process of having his portrait painted was somewhat difficult for him. 

“I’m a pretty out-there person, but I was very self-conscious about this idea of someone painting me,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I didn’t enjoy it, and it certainly was easier to do than I expected it would be, but I was pretty self-conscious.” 

Before the Prosperis painted Mills’ portrait, they visited campus with him in the fall to get a sense of his relationship with the College. Throughout this trip, Lucia Prosperi photographed Mills and various settings of the College to serve as references for Warren Prosperi’s painting. The photographs Lucia Prosperi took served as sources for Warren Prosperi as he went to the easel, but the portrait is by no means a copy of any of them. 

“By the time you get halfway through the painting, often, the photograph is set aside and I continue to alter and develop the likeness from my feeling for the person,” Warren Prosperi added. “We want to keep it as much as we can based on the person’s experience of the other person, not on any interim image between the painting and the person.” 

While visiting the College with Mills, the Prosperis were particularly struck by the way Mills interacted with students.

 “I would say eight out of 10 students that we passed on the Quad came running up to him, and he knew their name, he knew their cousin’s name or if their mother was ill or has she gotten back from Brazil,” Warren Prosperi said. “For every one of those eight people, he seemed to know them like a friend, and he did that consistently. It was completely unplanned. I don’t know how many presidents of universities get treated that way and who respond that way to the students in the school, but it was certainly marked.” 

As the Prosperis planned the portrait together, they decided to focus on the idea of Mills as a listener.

 “It just seemed like the right thing,” Warren Prosperi said. “His concern for the students and his attention to them seemed to be the center of how he related to the school, so the particular gesture that often resulted while he was listening seemed to be the right gesture and expression to put in the painting.”

 In the portrait, Mills looks as though he is listening to somebody speaking to him in the lobby of the Museum, according to the Prosperis. 

“The expression is subtle and hard to characterize,” said Warren Prosperi. “It’s not a big smile, it’s not a very serious face, it’s a very subtle combination of things which struck us about Barry.”
 Despite feeling self-conscious throughout the portrait’s production, Mills is pleased with the final product.

 “It will be interesting to see what people’s reactions are,” he said. “I think it reflects who I am, and given the limitations they had because of the subject they were dealing with—namely, me—I think he did a good job. And I hope people will think it reflects who I am.” 

The College would not comment on for the cost of commissioning the portrait. The funds for the painting came from last year’s presidential transition budget, according to Senior Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs Scott Hood.