March 02, 2015

A Little History Behind the Portrait of a Historian

Driving along scenic Wisconsin back roads last fall, Lois Hammerstrom Lyon’52 uncovered a little-known story about a painting that has been displayed at Beloit College for decades.

Lois and her husband, Joe Lyon’51, were visiting friends on the Door County peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan when their hosts took them to visit the studio of artists Phyllis and Jim Ingwersen.

Over six decades, Jim Ingwersen has produced thousands of commissioned portraits, including a painting of U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens that was chosen as the justice’s official portrait when he retired.

Poking around Ingwersen’s studio, Lois Lyon picked up a brochure featuring some of the artist’s work. One painting of a bespectacled man with a cane seemed oddly familiar.

Back home in Arlington Heights, Ill., Lyon sorted through old photos that led her to a 1980 picture of her mother-in-law, Florence Peck Lyon’20, gathered around a table at Beloit College with classmates celebrating their 60th reunion. That’s when she spotted the painting again.

Portrait of Professor of History Robert Irrmann'39 by Jim Ingwersen. It turns out that Ingwersen was commissioned to paint the illustrious Professor of History Robert Irrmann’39 upon his retirement. Irrmann taught at Beloit from 1948 to 1980 and served as the college’s archivist. In Lyon’s photo, the portrait sits at the front of a room on an easel, having just been dedicated.

Lyon sent a copy of the photo to the Ingwersens, who not only recognized the painting immediately, but also recalled Professor Irrmann’s name and remembered the Beloit people they met when the work was commissioned.

Then came the back story. Ingwersen recounted how he had just finished the painting in 1980. As he waited for Beloit representatives to retrieve the portrait from his Chicago studio, something unthinkable happened. The studio and the barn it was located in burned to the ground.

The completed, original portrait of Irrmann was lost, along with four other portrait commissions still in progress and many other works of art.

So Ingwersen began again.

Today, the second portrait of Professor Irrmann discloses nothing of this drama. It hangs at the front of Richardson Auditorium in Morse Ingersoll Hall, revealing only that it was painted by a gifted artist and dedicated to one of the great Beloit professors. A small plaque on the bottom of the frame simpy reads: “This portrait by James Jay Ingwersen was the gift of members of the Class of 1980 and other friends of Professor Irrmann. Dedicated October 11, 1980.”

Also In This Issue

  • Illustration showing an exchange of ideas and language between Beloit, WI and Belize in Central America.

    This is the Liberal Arts in Practice

  • Faculty Share Insights on Cuba

  • Record Applications

  • #blacklivesmatterbeloit, Ding Darling, and more news in brief


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