Mr. Cornell Goes to Albany: Ezra’s (Other) Life-Size Likeness

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You’ve seen the founder’s portrait in Uris Library. But did you know its near-twin resides in the NY state capital?

By Joe Wilensky

Ezra Cornell portrait in Albany
No, it's not Abraham Lincoln: the founder, memorialized on canvas. (Courtesy of the New York State Museum, Albany)

What’s eight feet tall and five feet wide, and has held a place of honor in Albany for more than a century? A life-size portrait of Ezra Cornell.

Painted by a leading 19th-century artist whose other subjects include heads of state on two continents, the immense work depicts the University’s founder dressed formally in a dark suit coat, standing by an ornate table bearing his top hat.

He holds a note in one hand—perhaps his musings on creating a university?—as he gazes thoughtfully into the distance, his face illuminated by an unseen light.

“It is a true likeness,” says Ezra Cornell ’70, BS ’71, the founder’s great-great-great grandson, “and serves to remind us that what he did and accomplished was of huge importance.”

An inventor and entrepreneur who made his fortune in the early telegraph industry, Ezra served in the New York State legislature (where he met future University president A.D. White) in the 1860s.

But his lasting legacy came in founding Cornell—as he famously envisioned it, “an institution where any person can find instruction in any study”—and, arguably, creating the modern American research university: nonsectarian, egalitarian, and with a mission to positively impact society.

The painting, which hangs in the State Library, was commissioned in 1893 to mark the 25th anniversary of Cornell opening to students in 1868.

It is a true likeness.

Ezra Cornell ’70

It was funded by a state appropriations bill that earmarked at least $3,000 to the project, “as an evidence of the grateful appreciation of the people of the State of New York for his eminent services in behalf of the cause of higher education.”

It would, sadly, be a posthumous likeness: Ezra had died in 1874, at the age of 67.

The artist who won the commission was John Colin Forbes, a Canadian well-known in the era for his true-to-life depictions in oil of prime ministers, royalty (including Britain’s King Edward VII), and several U.S. presidents.

Originally displayed in the Capitol Building when the State Library was located there, Forbes’s Ezra portrait moved—along with the library and its holdings—to the Education Department building across the street in 1912.

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Ezra ’70 is the University’s current life trustee; since 1969, he has held the seat on the board reserved for a lineal descendant of the founder.

He has viewed his ancestor’s portrait in Albany many times over the years.

It prompts him to ponder an impressive life story: not only from poverty to wealth, but with a calling to use his fortune for the greater good that continues to have a global impact.

“He was a common man, six feet tall and slender, with an austere look about him,” Cornell observes.

“The portrait reveals that he was a man known for his principles, strength of character, and perseverance. In his eyes, you can see he was humble and kind to his core.”

Published October 27, 2022


Comments

  1. Matt Rita, Class of 1992

    Isn’t there also a large portrait of Ezra Cornell hanging outside the law library in Myron Taylor Hall — specifically, in the stairwell leading up to the Gould Reading Room?

    • Kevin Clermont

      Yes, there is. The Law School records say this: Portrait, oil, on main, circular stairway, Myron Taylor Hall. The artist’s signature is unreadable, but it certainly was painted by Francis Bicknell Carpenter. This judgment is based on the following excerpt from the Cornell Era, Oct. 29, 1875:54. “Mr. Carpenter, the artist who executed the paintings of Professor Goldwin Smith and George Wiliam Curtis is in town with two more large paintings which are companion portraits to the above mentioned, one of Professor James Russell Lowell and the other of Professor Louis Agassiz. Mr. Carpenter also has a full-length portrait of Ezra Cornell nearly completed which will be hung in the museum” (formerly a two-story interior area of McGraw Hall). Cornell is signing the charter of the university.

  2. Cara Harth, Class of 1994

    Do they talk to each other like in Harry Potter?

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