The Concert Singer, Thomas Eakins
This striking portrait by Thomas Eakins is here in Philadelphia, where I’ve had the pleasure of studying it many times over the years. Were it not for Eakins’ even larger and more striking Gross Clinic, it would completely dominate the gallery in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in which it hangs.
Almost life size at 55 x 75 inches (191 x 138 cm), the painting has an immediacy that seems to project the figure into the room with you.
The gown is visually striking enough, but it’s the sensual presence of the singer, painted with such tactile, dimensional force, that makes the painting so compelling. The pose — with the singer caught in mid-note, completely focused, hands tensed — presents her as a captured moment in time.
The account is that in pursuit of visual truth, Eakins repeatedly asked the model, singer Weda Cook, to sing the same piece — a passage from Mendelssohon’s Elijah — so he could accurately capture not only the shape of her mouth, but the shape of the muscles in her throat in the act of singing.
Eakins worked on the painting for over two years, during the first of which he asked Cook to model three or four times a week. On finish, Eakins carved the opening bars of the Mendelssohon piece into the painting’s frame.
The painter’s search for accuracy extended to having Cook’s teacher, conductor Charles Schmitz, pose for the hand with a baton — the odd compositional placement of which is compensated for by the bouquet of flowers at the singer’s feet.
There was controversy (which seemed to hang around Eakins like a cloud) attached to the painting, in that Eakins asked Cook to post nude — presumably in order to get the position of the figure as accurately as possible. Cook refused, and Eakins’ repeated requests resulted in the artist and model falling out before the painting was finished. They later came to good enough terms that Eakins painted individual portraits of Cook and her husband.
Cook eventually asked if she could buy the painting, but Eakins was reluctant to let it go, citing the desire to exhibit it more extensively, as well as a personal attachment to the work. It remained in his possession until his death, and was given to the Philadelphia Museum by Eakins’ widow. The museum, amid it’s superb collection of Eakins’ work, also has his gestural sketch for the painting.