Art Through Time: A Global View
Portraits Art: The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton
Thomas Eakins was a prominent Philadelphia painter, classically trained at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he later taught, and at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Having studied human anatomy closely, he was particularly adept at figural work. Eakins painted numerous portraits both of his immediate circle and of notable doctors, scientists, artists, and other distinguished individuals. In these, the artist shied away from the pristine and idealized qualities characterizing the society portraits of his day. Instead, he created images showing a more complex and sometimes grittier reality—the dark and moody portrait of Miss Amelia van Buren (ca. 1891, Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.), for example, or the famously unprettified portrait of Dr. Samuel Gross overseeing an operation at his clinic (1875, Philadelphia Museum of Art).
Eakins’s realistic depictions were not always flattering. Indeed, some of his subjects were unhappy with their portraits and refused to accept them. In the case of The Gross Clinic, the art jury at Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial exhibition found the work so shockingly graphic that it was ultimately relegated to the fair’s medical exhibit. Portrait commissions were rare for Eakins. More often than not, when he created a portrait, it was out of his own artistic interest.
Eakins’s The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton stands out among the artist’s portraits for its extreme simplicity. Kenton was the artist’s brother-in-law, and the details of his profession have been lost to history. In this composition, Kenton stands before a stark, light background in an empty room. The space is only barely suggested by the angle of the baseboard and the subject’s shadow on the floor. Kenton wears an ill-fitting black suit, the hazy contours of which contrast with delicately rendered details that include a flowered necktie, a watch chain, and creases of age in the sitter’s face. His casual pose is odd for a formal, full-length portrait.
In Eakins’s portrait, we see an image that is less about the exterior we can see than the interior we can’t. Kenton seems lost in thought. His head is bowed and his expression inscrutable. Eakins uses his isolation on the canvas to suggest an introspective character. The artist included The Thinker in many exhibitions during the years following its execution, suggesting that he was particularly proud of it. Critics, too, reviewed the painting favorably, perhaps because it read in many ways not so much as a portrait likeness, but as an allegory for the state of humanity on the brink of a modern age.
David Lubin, Professor of Art, Wake Forest University
“Eakins was attracted to what he saw as the complete honesty and integrity of the old master portraitists to sear into the consciousness of the people they were portraying. In this portrait of Louis Kenton, who was Eakins’ brother-in-law, he shows a youngish middle-aged man with wire rimmed glasses looking down at his shadow, and he has his hands plunged into his pockets and his shoulders are sagging. And it’s an image of weight, of gravity. It’s almost suggested that this man’s mind is as rumpled as his clothing, and so there’s a feeling of this is a person who has really lived. Eakins’ contemporary, John Singer Sargent was brilliant at making people look much more elegant than they were in real life, much more relaxed and soigné than they were in real life. Eakins was the opposite. He made everyone look older, more rumpled, more worn and torn down by life than they actually were or at least as they appeared to the rest of the world. So, needless to say, Sargent was a very wealthy successful portraitist and Eakins was not.
In the Louis Kenton, I would also say that even his glasses, instead of seeing his eyes through them you almost feel like his eyes are bouncing back into his head. This portrait is commonly known as The Thinker because right away it was recognized as this wonderful image of solitude and of introspection, and Eakins has done everything within this image to have this feeling of this hermetically sealed individual who’s not looking out to the world. Your hands are a way of contacting the world, but Louis has his hands deep in his pockets, so he is only in contact with himself, and his mind.”
Berger, Martin A. Man Made: Thomas Eakins and the Construction of Gilded Age Manhood. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.
Braddock, Alan C. Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
Griffin, Randall C. Homer, Eakins, and Anshutz: The Search for American Identity in the Gilded Age. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004.
Kirkpatrick, Sidney. The Revenge of Thomas Eakins. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
Lubin, David M. “Modern Psychological Selfhood.” In Inventing the Psychological: Toward a Cultural History of Emotional Life in America, edited by Joel Pfister and Nancy Schnog, 142–145. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
“Thomas Eakins: The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton (17.172).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/eapa/ho_17.172.htm (October 2006).