Portraits of Paul Robeson

Feb 09, 2019 - Apr 28, 2019

Accomplished as a scholar, athlete, actor, singer, and global activist, Paul Robeson (1898-1976) is one of Rutgers University’s most distinguished alumni and the quintessential 20th century Renaissance man. Robeson attended Rutgers College in New Brunswick on an academic scholarship, becoming the university’s third black student and first black football player. His scholarly accomplishments included being inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society and Rutgers’ Cap and Skull Honor Society. At Rutgers, Robeson, who spoke more than 20 languages fluently, honed his oratory skills as a member of the Intercollegiate Debating Association. He was valedictorian of his graduating class in 1919. Robeson earned a law degree from Columbia Law School but decided to use his artistic talents in theater and music to promote African and African-American history and culture. Over nearly four decades, he achieved worldwide acclaim as a vocalist and actor on stage and screen. A towering figure in the African-American struggle for human dignity and democratic rights, Robeson connected this struggle at home with the global fight for civil and labor rights, independence for African colonies, and economic justice.  Because of these progressive views and his outspoken comments about racism in the United States, Robeson was targeted by right wing proponents of the Cold War and put under F.B.I surveillance.  As his career suffered in the U.S., he performed for international audiences until his passport was revoked in 1950, effectively ending his career.  The F.B.I.’s surveillance of Paul Robeson continued until his death.   

In 2019, Rutgers marks the centennial anniversary of Paul Robeson's graduation from Rutgers College in 1919. In recognition, our community honors his achievements as a scholar, athlete, actor, singer, and global activist in a yearlong celebration featuring lectures, performances, art exhibitions, and more. These six portraits of Paul Robeson were commissioned by the university as images for the banners displayed over all the university campuses for the Robeson Centennial Year.   

The Zimmerli’s presentation of the Paul Robeson portraits is in partnership with the Robeson Centennial Celebration Committee and Rutgers University–New Brunswick. Further information about the Robeson Centennial can be found at robeson100.rutgers.edu.

Valerie Suter

Paul Robeson, The Scholar, from the Paul Robeson Legacy Project, 2018

Watercolor on paper

48 3/16 × 24 7/16 in. (122.4 × 62 cm)

Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, Commissioned for the Paul Robeson Legacy Project at Rutgers University 2019


Photo Peter Jacobs