Early in the movie The Artist, the audience is clear on silent film heartthrob George Valentin’s self-image. On his way out of his house, he pauses by a dazzling life-sized portrait of himself in top-hat and tails, smiles, and waves to the painting. Immediately, my mind jumped to a very similar painting in The Phillips Collection, George Luk’s Otis Skinner as Col. Philippe Bridau (1919). I’ve always wondered about this unusual painting: Who is Otis Skinner? And who is Col. Phillipe Bridau?
It turns out Duncan Phillips had been a fan of stage actor Otis Skinner since boyhood. In his 1902-03 journal, which consists solely of theater reviews, the 17-year old Phillips wrote of Skinner’s performance in the play Lazarre:
Mr. Skinner was never seen to better advantage . . . His beautiful enunciation and scholarly reading, his glowing and fervent poetic temperament, and his immense dramatic power in climatic acting, proclaim a romanticist of which this country is justly proud.
(Phillips likely saw Lazarre at the Columbia Theater in Maryland per this newspaper announcement of April 26, 1903.)
In 1919, Phillips commissioned George Luks to paint a portrait of his favorite actor as the beloved character Col. Philippe Bridau from the play The Honor of the Family. Skinner had already been captured on canvas in this role by French-born painter Victor D. Hecht, more formally and in full length. It is likely that Luks saw this painting, as there are definite similarities: the rotation of the body, the costume and tilt of the top-hat, the angle of the cane. However, Luks’s portrait is distinguished by the artist’s freer brushwork, a definite change in facial expression, and a neutral background. Phillips considered Luks, who himself had a history of stage performance, the only painter for the job. As Skinner was too busy for portrait sittings, Phillips purchased theater tickets for Luks so he could observe Skinner at work. It is said that after a brief dressing room visit with the actor and the aid of a photograph, Luks completed the portrait in less than a week.
Phillips was delighted with the painting, and it quickly became one of the most popular works in his collection, winning awards and frequently requested for loans. Marjorie Phillips records in her book, Duncan Phillips and his Collection, that Skinner himself loved the painting and visited it at the museum whenever he was in Washington. Perhaps Skinner smiled and waved at his portrait, just like George Valentin.
The correlation between George Valentin–the silent star determined to preserve his integrity against the radical development of talkies–and Otis Skinner continues. In 1920, Otis Skinner made his feature film debut in a silent version of his signature stage role Hajj in Kismet. Ten years later, the film was re-made, not only with sound but also in color, costing Warner Bros. $600,000. At that time, Skinner was 72 years old and it would be his only sound feature film. Both the 1920 and 1930 versions are considered lost films, though outtake footage and a soundtrack does exist for the 1930 version.