Hidden in Plain Sight

When Laurel Stern Boeck arrived at Northern Illinois University to start work on her portrait of President John Peters, she was drawn to a painting of NIU’s first president, John Williston Cook.

John Williston Cook, NIU's first president

It wasn’t a sense of history that drew her, but rather an appreciation of artistic technique. “The quality of the drawing and the brush strokes, the richness of it…it is just a fabulous portrait,” said Boeck, a New York–based portrait artist who has painted heads of state and captains of industry. Boeck was even more impressed when she realized that the piece had been painted by Ralph Clarkson, an important turn-of-the-century portrait artist. Today, his works are featured in the collections of the National Academy in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Fittingly, it emerged that Clarkson had several links to NIU. A native of Massachusetts, he studied in France and Italy before arriving in Chicago in 1896. He quickly became a prominent member of Chicago’s artistic community, serving as both an instructor and as a governor of the Chicago Art Institute, where he met sculptor Lorado Taft. In 1898, just a few years after NIU had opened its doors, the two became founding members of the Eagle’s Nest Artist Colony in Oregon, Illinois.

The lease on the Eagle’s Nest property lasted as long as one of the founding members lived. Of that group, Clarkson was the last man standing, passing away in 1942. The land was signed over to NIU nine years later and is currently operated as the Lorado Taft Field Campus.

The NIU connections don’t end there. Clarkson also painted a portrait of Gov. John Peter Altgeld, whose name adorns the university’s landmark building. He also painted a portrait of Gov. Frank O. Lowden, after whom NIU’s Lowden Hall, immediately south of Altgeld, is named.

Boeck’s portrait of Peters was unveiled May 6.