My Father’s Girlfriend: The Mind of Miss Amelia

Thomas Eakins, Miss Amelia Van Buren, c. 1891. Oil on canvas, 45 x 32 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1927

Growing up as the daughter of a classics professor, I was dragged to quite a few museums over the course of my formative years. I didn’t always think it was fun then, but when I grew into an adult and it was time to make decisions regarding the course of my life (like choosing a college major), these trips with Dad proved to be highly influential.

The Phillips Collection was a special place to him. One of my earliest memories, perhaps I was 4 or 6 years old, was standing in front of the Thomas Eakins’s portrait of Miss Amelia Van Buren in one of the parlors in the house portion of the museum, and Dad excitedly telling me why this painting had his unwavering adoration. What was in Miss Amelia’s mind? Look at how vulnerable, bored, and isolated she appears. Notice the light, the chair, her hands. Why would Eakins choose to paint her this way? What does the composition tell us about the role of women at the time of its creation; what does it tell us about this woman? He was smitten.

Miss Amelia Van Buren was in fact quite an independent woman, a quality my father, years ago, perceived entirely through the representational queues of her portrait. From the size of the chair she sits in to the empty background and lack of defining objects, the strength of this woman resting here in her vulnerability and humanity captures our complete attention. Amelia Van Buren was a painter and photographer who studied under Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; “by which art she hoped to support herself, her parents I believe being dead,” wrote Eakins. She never married but chose to live in partnership with a fellow female student of Eakins, allowing both women to live independently of financial support from a man. For a woman of her time, Van Buren’s lifestyle would have been considered unconventional. She and Eakins remained friends after his resignation from the academy and this portrait was a gift to her many years later. The painting was enthusiastically acquired by Duncan Phillips in 1927 directly from Miss Van Buren herself.

My dad recently visited the museum and much to his delight saw his “old girlfriend,” currently on display as part of the permanent collection and the Made in the USA exhibition opening March 1. He said “there she is! What do you imagine is going through her mind?”

Lydia O’Connor, Finance Assistant

The Everyman and the Miner: Depictions of Hardship in the 1930s by Walker Evans and Jack Delano

It’s a two-for-Thursday here on the blog, as we enter day four in our celebration of FotoWeekDC. Both of the images we’re featuring today from Shaping a Modern Identity: Portraits from the Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection stem from photographers who worked for the Farm Security Administration, documenting the federal government’s efforts to restore rural communities affected by the Great Depression. The similarities between the two images, however, end there.

Walker Evans, Landowner, Moundville, AL, 1936. Gelatin silver print.The Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection. Partial and promised gift of Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg, 2005.

Walker Evans, Landowner, Moundville, AL, 1936. Gelatin silver print. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., The Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection, Partial and promised gift of Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg, 2005.

 Walker Evans’s photographs went beyond the intentions of the FSA’s agenda, as he sought to capture the essence of the true consequences of the Depression on ordinary American life. In the summer of 1936, Evans took a leave from the FSA to work independently with writer James Agee to capture the people and scenery of Moundville, Alabama. In his portrait Landowner, Moundville, AL we see a man standing in front of the siding of a building, looking straight into the camera in an expressionless manner, his arms casually at his sides. Evans portrays him as an archetype of those affected by the Depression: his wrinkled suit, the lack of emotion, the low contrast between the man and the background, all suggest the everyday struggles of any man in the subject’s situation. In this depiction, Evans isolates the subject from the glorification which often accompanies portraiture (as seen in Serrano’s depiction of “Sir Leonard”) and approaches his subject as the everyman. He does little to explore him emotionally but rather presents a frank image with somber undertones of the impending economic circumstances of the time.

Jack Delano, Bootleg Coal Miner near Pottsville, PA, 1938. Gelatin silver print.

Jack Delano, Bootleg Coal Miner near Pottsville, PA, 1938. Gelatin silver print. Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection.

On the other hand, Jack Delano sought to personally connect with his subject matter, carefully composing his images to highlight what sets his subject matter apart, individualizing them. “To do justice to the subject has always been my main concern,” he wrote in his autobiography published in 1997. “Light, color, texture and so on are, to me, important only as they contribute to the honest portrayal of what is in front of the camera, not as ends in themselves.” In 1938, Delano spent a month living amongst and photographing the men at a mine in eastern Pennsylvania and due to this constant proximity with his subject matter, his photographs demonstrate a special connection with and compassion for the miners. In Bootleg Coal Miner near Pottsville, PA, the subject appears scruffy and worn, his mouth is open revealing missing teeth, and a cigarette rests on his lower lip. The photographer has cropped the man’s face tightly within the frame as the miner extends diagonally across the composition. This is no everyman; he has a definite identity. While Evans’ subject in Landowner seems to blend into the background and thus becomes more of an idea or archetype than an actual person, Delano’s miner confronts the viewer head-on, declaring himself an individual, albeit one of many struggling to make ends meet in tough economic times.