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Self Portrait

Thomas Eakins1902

National Academy of Design

National Academy of Design

Eakins was voted an Associate of the National Academy in March 1902. In fulfillment of the institution's requirement for Associate membership, he painted this self-portrait over the course of the next two months. Nine days after its arrival at the Academy, the artist was elected to full membership. The only other known self-portrait by Eakins is in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and according to an inscription on the reverse of the canvas it was executed in 1902 as a study for the Academy's portrait. In the Hirshhorn painting Eakins portrays himself with a bold sense of confidence that is forcefully accented by his frontal, full-faced, close-up positioning. The Academy's picture conveys a much different impression. Eakins's body is set further back in the composition in a gesture of subdued reserve, and the tilting of the head accentuates the off-balance dynamic of the picture. His hair and clothing are unkempt and his face is lined and worn by old age. The meaning of the painting has been the subject of considerable art historical debate. One popular interpretation is that the artist's appearance is a jab at the National Academy for waiting so long to welcome him into the organization. The art historian Darrel Sewell has remarked that "it is not self-confidence and success that are seen in the artist's face, but a look of accusation and bitterness that echoes his words in a letter of 1894: 'My honors are misunderstanding, persecution & neglect, enhanced because unsought.'"

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