Oil on canvas, 1903, by Thomas Eakins (1844 – 1916)
Yet another artist misunderstood, under-appreciated and falling foul of the conservatism of the day, Thomas Eakins could not count himself as a particularly ‘successful’ artist during his life time, if the criteria for judging as such rests with exhibits, sales and commissions. He was prolific, however, and a passionate teacher who held firm to his own philosophy of art even as antithetical as it was to the conventions of his time. Today he is regarded as one of the most important artists in the American canon and this portrait hangs in a place of some prominence amongst Harvard’s vast art collection. Eakins was obsessed with anatomical realism and made comprehensive studies of the intricacies of the human (and also equine) form by becoming, in addition to a painter, one of the earliest exponents of the camera. His multitude of photographs of figures in various acts of exercise and activity were influenced and are comparable to the famous motion studies captured by Eadweard Muybridge. He was also fascinated by sequential movement imagery, of which his iconic painting of male nudes in various attitudes captured in The Swimming Hole is a classic example. As a young man in Paris, he denounced both the pretentious affectation of the neo-classical preoccupation of the Academy and the collapse of tight structure he regarded in the new fad for impressionism. Instead he made a comprehensive study of two of the great master-realists, Diego Velázquez and Jusepe de Ribera. His subsequent gift for portraiture in particular is what Eakins’ towering reputation now rests on.
For Eakins, portraiture was devalued by an attention to fashionable idealisation. The verisimilitude of the external appearance was secondary to a commitment to revealing character through the aesthetic merit which resides in the stark objectivity that precise anatomical form can reveal. His portrait of Walt Whitman was apparently the poet’s very favourite: it obviously takes a poet of the soul to recognise a painter of the soul too. However, in the more conventional art market, this also meant that his finished paintings were often denounced by the very people who commissioned them, sometimes the very subjects themselves, but also, more revealingly, the money-men who paid for them. The likeness of Miss Amelia Van Buren (1890) is now regarded as one of the greatest American portraits, but was rejected on completion. The same fate befell this portrait of Miss Alice Kurtz, which was commissioned by her father, a prominent Philadelphia banker, and then promptly banished to the attic. Old man Kurtz complained bitterly that Eakins had reduced his daughter to a “bag of bones.” What he probably meant is that he objected to the uncomfortable revelation of psychological prescience, now that his daughter was seen stripped of the social markers of superficial glamour and idealisation, which Eakins forced him to reflect upon.
If it were purely a stylised image like any other, the viewer of the day would look upon Alice Kurtz with a gaze which contexualised her within the parameters of her socio-economic status; as an heiress, as a woman commoditised in society by virtue of her associations with family capital and enterprise. She would be viewed with a certain alacrity by men too; the male gaze would proliferate around her. In crude terms, she would be seen as both an attractive acquisition and as a route to financial mobility. However, one of Eakins’ somewhat prophetic abilities was to banish high society from the high society portrait. Instead what emerges is, despite the richness of its colour, the non-sentimentalised depiction of a complex personality, melancholy in tone, but radiating inner truth. It is a penetratingly candid portrait, arguably as original and powerful as many of Velázquez’s finest.
First, all material accessories are expunged from the composition: the usual lush interior ornateness is absent from the sitter’s background and instead the muted and somewhat bland chiaroscuro forces us to regard the figure of Miss Kurtz with a degree of frankness which paradoxically ennobles rather than denigrates her appearance. Despite being depicted in a somewhat plain white dress and stripped of any jewelry to accentuate femininity, she becomes more, not less, strident as a subject of her gender in our view. Her muscular neck and shoulders, with the particular accent on the muscle which runs vertically down her turned neck, seem to animate her with a sense of boldness and independence which was usually suppressed or at least softened in other portraits of high society ladies. No wonder her father was disapproving of the result, perhaps fearsome of having his daughter considered free-spirited and temperamental by possible suitors. In a way, the portrait forms a commentary on the sexist views of the patriarchy just as much as it does about the stridency of womanhood. Miss Kurtz does not look at us and therefore out at her admirers but rather she is captured wearing a dreamy, unfocused gaze as if her attentions are adamantly not on who gazes upon her; it is a slight, a snub which is captured by way of a small anatomical gesture and yet it conveys a powerful and cogent sense of the agency belonging to a complex, resolute, self-possessed personality. Indeed, the more we look at her, the more insufferable she seems to find us: her attitude is a triumph of free-spiritedness over social engineering.
Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.