Yale Law School Accepted a Donation for Clarence Thomas's Portrait. Five Years Later, the Painting Is Nowhere To Be Seen.

Heather Gerken (Harold Shapiro/Yale Law School)
April 29, 2023

In the spring of 2018, Yale Law School dean Heather Gerken happily acknowledged the receipt of a donation from the Texas billionaire Harlan Crow to fund the commission of a portrait of Crow's friend, Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas.

In an April 2018 letter to Crow, Gerken thanked him for the gift and described Thomas, a 1974 graduate of the law school, as a "trailblazer."

"We are so pleased to welcome the justice to our outstanding gallery of portraits," Gerken wrote. "They will always have a place of prominence at Yale Law School." Five years later, students and faculty members say they've never seen it, and certainly not displayed in a place of prominence.

The portrait exists. Yale commissioned the New York City-based artist Jacob Collins to paint it, and Collins told the Washington Free Beacon that, according to his records, the portrait was being framed in March 2019 and that he believes it was delivered to the school shortly thereafter. Yale acknowledged his gift with a letter of thanks.

Neither Gerken nor a spokesman for the law school responded to requests for comment about the portrait's whereabouts.

"It was completely understood that the painting would join...the pantheon of paintings," Crow told the Free Beacon.

Thomas has had a contentious relationship with his alma mater, writing in his autobiography of his feeling that a Yale Law School degree "meant one thing for white graduates and another for blacks" and of affixing a 15 cent price sticker to his diploma and tossing it in the basement. In recent years, though, he has visited the school and called his resentments "juvenile."

Dozens of portraits adorn the walls of Yale Law School, which uses them to honor the law school's founders as well as distinguished graduates and professors.

The portraits fall into two categories, former law school dean Guido Calabresi told the Yale Daily News in 2015: those that are automatically displayed and those that are displayed by the dean's discretion. The former includes alumni or faculty members who have served as president of the United States, justices of the Supreme Court, or chief judge of one of the circuit courts—a category that should include Thomas.

All portraits, aside from those of former deans, must be commissioned with outside funding, and Crow in 2018 provided the $105,000 to fund Thomas's portrait after Yale Law School professor George Priest worked to repair Thomas's relationship with the school and helped to persuade the justice to sit for the portrait's painting.

"We've had some episodes here where students protest when people come to the law school, that may have something to do with it," Priest told the Free Beacon. He had not visited the law school since the COVID-19 pandemic and was not aware of whether the painting had gone up, he added.

"It'll be hung, there’s no doubt about that. We have Abe Fortas's portrait up, for crying out loud," Priest said, referring to the Yale Law School graduate and former Supreme Court justice who resigned from his seat in 1969 after revelations that he was receiving payments of $20,000 annually from the family foundation of a Wall Street financier—for the rest of his life—in exchange for unspecific advice.

Typically, the university has marked portrait unveilings with celebratory events. The school in 2017 held such an event for the unveiling of Justice Sonia Sotomayor's portrait, which now hangs in the law school's largest classroom.

Prior to Crow's gift, the Yale Daily News noted the absence of Thomas's portrait. A 2005 report reads: "The walls of the law school display portraits of past Supreme Court justices affiliated with Yale—William Howard Taft, William Douglas, Byron White, Abe Fortas, and Potter Stewart—but Thomas's portrait is conspicuously absent."