Maybe It’s the Chair?

(Left) Thomas Eakins, An Actress (Portrait of Suzanne Santje), 1903, Oil on canvas, 79 3/4 x 59 7/8 inches (202.6 x 152.1 cm), Gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss Mary Adeline Williams, 1929. The Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Right) Thomas Eakins, Miss Amelia Van Buren, ca. 1891, Oil on canvas 45 x 32 in.; 114.3 x 81.28 cm. Acquired 1927. The Phillips Collection, Washington DC.

(Left) Thomas Eakins, An Actress (Portrait of Suzanne Santje), 1903, Oil on canvas, 79 3/4 x 59 7/8 inches (202.6 x 152.1 cm), Gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss Mary Adeline Williams, 1929. The Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Right) Thomas Eakins, Miss Amelia Van Buren, ca. 1891, Oil on canvas 45 x 32 in.; 114.3 x 81.28 cm. Acquired 1927. The Phillips Collection, Washington DC.

Recently, I came across Thomas Eakins’s An Actress (Portrait of Suzanne Santje) (1903) in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and chuckled at the sight of yet another put-upon woman in a pink dress in an Eakins portrait. We’ve been having a bit of fun at the expense of Miss Amelia Van Buren (1891) who hangs on the first floor of our Sant Building as part of Made in the USA; a caption contest invites people to leave notes answering the question “What is Amelia Thinking?” But really, why are these women so down in these portraits?

Many scholars note that Eakins often aged his subjects, especially women. William J. Clark’s essay, “The Iconography of Gender in Thomas Eakins Portraiture“, claims that in photographs contemporary to the painted portrait of Santje, she is youthful, confident. Yet here, she is heavy and drained, swamped in spilling pink fabric. A portrait of her husband looms over her shoulder and a script has fallen, as if dropped from a lifeless hand, onto the floor.  William S. McFeely, in his biography of Eakins, is fascinated by the Van Buren portrait and describes her dress as “ill-fitting” and “out-of-date.” She looks, presumably, outdoors and away from the gloomy interior setting.  Clark compares her painted portrait to the photographs Eakins took of her in which her hair appears blonde, not streaked grey, and her skin is smooth and bright. Art historian Gordon Hendricks quotes Leonard Baskin when he suggests that Eakins was intentionally burdening women in his portraits to reflect the “Victorian horror of their lives.”

Or, maybe, it’s just that uncomfortable chair.

What is Amelia Thinking?

Since Made in the USA: American Masters from The Phillips Collection, 1850–1970 opened, visitors have shared their ideas about what Miss Amelia Van Buren, the subject of Thomas Eakins’s painting, may be thinking.

We’ve gotten 75 submissions so far via a comment station in the galleries and social media.

What do you think Amelia is thinking? Instagram a photo or Tweet your ideas using #MyAmericanArt.

Below are some highlights from the first week of the exhibition. We love the creativity!

Visitor submissions from our talkback station in the galleries.

Visitor submissions from our talkback station in the galleries.

 

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