The University's Portrait Collection dates to 1815, the year Brown acquired its first portrait — a painting of its founding president James Manning. As the collection has grown over the years the subjects of these portraits have included administrators, faculty, students, trustees, and benefactors. Many are Brown graduates, although some are community leaders, military heroes, or other figures with only tangential connection to the University but still thought worthy of emulation. Most of the people portrayed in these images lived lives that in some way benefited Brown, and consequentially have been meant to serve as an inspiration.
These likenesses date from every period in Brown's history, from its founding years to the present time. The portraits represent aspects of the culture of the University over time, serving as vignettes of the University's concerns and priorities throughout its history.
Today the catalogue of the Brown Portrait Collection totals over 300 paintings, drawings, and photographs.