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Wyeth Lecture in American Art: Thomas Eakins and the “Grand Manner” Portrait

Kathleen A. Foster of the Philadelphia Museum of Art delivers the second biennial Wyeth Lecture in American Art, originally presented on October 27, 2005. Codified in the late 18th century as a full-length, life-size portrait with impressive costume and attributes of rank and identity, the Grand Manner portrait evolved in the 19th century to suit the status-consciousness of a new, bourgeois era. Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), born and educated in Philadelphia and trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris,  painted about two hundred fifty finished portraits in his lifetime (apart from portrait-related figure subjects), most of which depict the sitter at life size but on a small canvas that shows less than half the figure. But from the very outset of his career, and with increasing frequency after 1889, he essayed full-length portraits in the Grand Manner. Between 1870 and 1909, when he all but ceased painting, Eakins produced 36 full-length portrait figures, either seated or standing. A closer look at the choice and treatment of these relatively few sitters teaches us much about Eakins, his methods, and his values. If, as Oscar Wilde remarked, every great portrait is a picture of the artist, this “grand” series reveals in the most ambitious format the identity of the artist, covertly buried in the elaborate perspective coordinates of each composition, or enacted in a private pantheon of colleagues—artists, scientists, and teachers—that embody his grandest aspirations and mirror his sense of self.

Released: December 30, 2014