Text by Geoffrey Smith
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This large canvas, well over six feet (two meters) tall, presents us with a near life-size full length portrait of a man in a dark suit, feet set squarely apart standing in an unadorned and unexplained space. No extraneous object is allowed to deflect us from our contemplation of the subject of the portrait who is himself deep in thought, hands in pockets, head tilted downwards, his face serious and introspective. A sense of profound quietude drifts from the canvas slightly tinged with melancholia – this latter response perhaps reflecting the subject’s difficult personal circumstances.
This is a portrait of Louis Kenton, Eakins’ brother-in-law who had married Elizabeth Macdowell, sister of Eakins’ wife, in 1889. Elizabeth had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where Eakins had been director. She had enjoyed some modest success as an artist but her marriage to Kenton was apparently unhappy and short-lived.
When the painting was exhibited it was much admired – something of a novelty for Eakins who had received scant recognition from all except a few supporters throughout his career as a painter. Now, in the last decade of his life this slowly began to change; two years after this painting was completed he was at last made a member of the National Academy of Design, the association of American artists founded earlier in the 19th century by Thomas Cole and others.
This lack of acclaim meant that Eakins spent most of his life teaching while always working on his own artistic output. A great many of his portraits were painted as a result of Eakins inviting the subject to sit for him rather than the more usual arrangement of the client commissioning the artist. Eakins advised one of his students that the mission of a painter was to ‘peer deeply into American life’ and he has certainly achieved that aim in this work. There is something here which is quintessentially American; the open relaxed stance, the informal nature of the clothing (especially compared to contemporary middle class Europeans) right down to the high-heeled boots. All his life Eakins was concerned with the human body – with portraiture in its widest sense, either formally posed or, especially earlier in his career, portrayed against the backdrop of a natural or professional setting. In order to further his understanding of the human form Eakins became an enthusiastic exponent of photography which he took up in the 1870s. He made many photographs of models in various poses, building up a reference resource for his students. But his interest in photography also took him in the direction of research into human movement. In 1884 he assisted Eadweard Muybridge at the University of Pennsylvania with his famous photographic enquiries into the nature of human and animal movement. Later Eakins continued this interest, conducting further research into the anatomy of motion.
Although an innovator in the use of the camera as a servant to his art and his study of the human body, he was technically conservative as a painter but this did not stop him from producing profoundly memorable work such as this portrait.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1899 Gustave Klimt: Portrait of Serena Lederer, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
1900 Édouard Vuillard: Madame Hessel on the Sofa, Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery
1900 Pablo Picasso: Moulin de la Galette, New York, Solomon Guggenheim Museum (Tannhauser Collection)
1901 Ferdinand Hodler: Spring, Essen, Folkwang Museum