Skip to Main Content

London artist paints powerful portraits of YSM luminaries

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2018 - Spring


In the coming months, a commissioned portrait of Carolyn Slayman, PhD, a nationally renowned geneticist and longtime leader at the medical school who died in 2016, is expected to join those of her colleagues and forerunners.

The British portrait artist Alastair Adams, whose portfolio includes images of former British prime minister Tony Blair as well as other Yale luminaries, is on the job.

Adams views portrait painting as a challenge to do more than create a picture that looks like a person. “That’s the starting point,” he said. “The other side of this portrait is about being able to visually process people’s testimony about what the person was like, too.”

Adams, a past president of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, teaches at England’s Loughborough University and has published papers on portrait painting. During a series of transatlantic visits, he is learning all that he can about Slayman, studying her appearance in photographs and talking to those who knew her best, including her husband, Clifford Slayman, PhD, professor emeritus of cellular and molecular physiology, and Dean Robert J. Alpern, MD.

“She quite clearly was a much-loved character,” Adams said, “but she also carried around huge swaths of the history of the School of Medicine and its politics and its characters and its decisions in her head. She was an absolutely vital cornerstone to the life and the running of the school.”

Then, too, there are the telling details—what Adams calls “touchstones” in a subject’s life—in this case, Slayman’s fondness for fish symbolism (she was a Pisces); her use of yellow legal pads; her connections to her home state, Maine; her morning tea with lab technician Ken Allen, who worked with her for 42 years.

“The question,” Adams said, “is then, ‘How do you bring those things together to create some sort of a statement?’ ”

Portraits, he believes, should be more than simple representations.

“What you’re looking to do, as well as produce an image of a person, is to create a painting that has their tone of voice about it,” he explained.

A viewer can detect that tone in Adams’ other paintings. Rich with luminous texture and detail, they reward lingering examination, and his subjects sparkle with personality. He has painted several portraits of Blair: One, for example, depicts a direct gaze and a laid-back pose, the leader’s hands shoved into jeans pockets; another now hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery. More recently, Adams painted Yale College Dean Marvin Chun, PhD, the Richard M. Colgate Professor of Psychology and professor of neurobiology, then the Master of Berkeley College on the undergraduate campus, in scarlet academic regalia before the Berkeley coat-of-arms and the last blossoming of a familiar cherry tree.

Adams is also beginning research for a future portrait of Dorothy Horstmann, MD, the polio pioneer and the medical school’s first female professor.

But for now, the Slayman portrait will keep Adams busy with a host of decisions—what size it should be, where to depict the scientist (her lab? an office?), how to work in details of her personal life—ultimately, how to create a posthumous portrait that depicts Slayman clearly and with integrity to both those who knew her and those who didn’t.