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Runde’s Twilight portrait unveiled at Statehouse

THIS FIVE-FOOT-tall portrait of Vermont luminary Alexander Twilight was unveiled in a May 5 ceremony at the Vermont Statehouse, where it hangs along with 86 other portraits — mostly of white men. Middlebury artist Katie Runde created the piece.

MONTPELIER — Middlebury artist Katie Runde worked on a life-size portrait of 19th century educator, minister and lawmaker Alexander Twilight for more than a year to make it just right for display in the seat of Vermont government.

On May 5 the portrait of Twilight, the first U.S. college graduate and U.S. state representative of African descent, was unveiled in the Vermont Statehouse. A host of dignitaries were on hand to mark a new chapter in Vermont history.

Alexander Lucius Twilight (1795-1857) was born in Corinth, graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Middlebury College in 1821, and was the principal of a coed grammar school and the pastor in Brownington between 1829-47 and 1853-55. He was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives in 1836.

While almost all portraits in the Statehouse depict white men of considerable means and/or military prowess, Twilight brings with him not only the first representation of a person of color, but also of a radically different kind of power. As Runde said at the May 5 ceremony: “This is not leadership through domination. This is leadership through service and relationship.” 

Remarks were also made by Gov. Phil Scott, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Dr. William Hart, Vermont State Curator David Schütz, Vermont State Reps. Hal Colston and Kevin “Coach” Christie, Vermont State Sens. Kesha Ram Hinsdale and Randy Brock, former National Life Group Vice President Chris Graff, Curatorial Task Force for the State House member Xusana Davis, and Old Stone House Museum and Historic Village in Brownington’s Carmen Jackson, Bob Hunt and Molly Veysey.

VTDigger reported that Sen. Ram Hinsdale noted there were 87 portraits in the Vermont Capitol. “Three women, one person of color, no women of color. We have so far to go,” she said. 

Twilight’s racial identity fluctuates in historical records, William Hart, professor emeritus of history at Middlebury College, said at Thursday’s ceremony. 

Twilight’s father was biracial, and his mother was white, or white-appearing, Hart said. The 1800 census recorded the Twilight family as Black, VTDigger reports. In 1810, while Twilight was an indentured servant in a neighboring household, the census recorded him in a category titled “all other free persons, except Indians not taxed.” That same year, the census-taker recorded Twilight’s mother and siblings as white. In all later census data, Twilight was also recorded as white.

“For me, Twilight is an example of an African American, who by virtue of his racial ambiguity, his education, his profession and his spouse, permitted those who knew him to read him as performing whiteness,” Hart said.

The portrait has been in the works since 2020. Runde dug into the history in preparation for the five-foot-tall portrait by reading Twilight’s sermons and his students’ writings. She also spent time at the Old Stone House Museum and Historic Village in Brownington, where Twilight built his school and pastored a congregation. 

Runde worked with three different models to get the figure right, she said, which was also challenging because very few images of Twilight exist — and the best are small, scratchy daguerreotypes. 

“I had to track down the 1850s menswear, and I was reaching out to theater companies all over the state,” Runde said. 

Twilight is shown in front of the granite Athenian Hall of the grammar school he ran in Brownington. He holds a Bible in one hand, and in the other, a copy of William Paley’s Natural Theology, a fossil and a daguerreotype of the second Statehouse, where Twilight served one session in 1836. Behind him are his students. 

 “Notice the girls,” Runde said. Twilight’s school was co-educational, and about a third of the student body were girls. 

Twilight’s image in the Statehouse represents a “radically different kind of power,” Runde said. 

VTDigger’s Riley Robinson contributed to this story.

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