Baudelaire wrote in 1846: ““A portrait is a model complicated by an artist.” Many a poor painting and studio photo tried capturing our highly pictorial friend, Walt Whitman. It seems HE preempted all visual invention. That beard, the head massively seaworthy as Neptune’s, a tendency to have himself photographed about as often as most men get haircuts. Those self-consciously unstructured workmen’s clothes, chosen by a closet dandy. With characteristic grace, he usually found something to praise in each bad picture of him.
Today we speak of the poet’s only painted portrait that convinces us we’re really with him. It shoehorns us into conversation at the front-side of his wheelchair. He is sixty-nine, half paralyzed but this picture flatters us into thinking we’ve just somehow made him laugh. Fact is, the portrait most resembles the poet in its being so invitational. The picture becomes, in the end, Whitman’s collaboration. With us. And, of course, the painter.
Thomas Eakins started this work in November of 1886 and finished it only the following April. Had Whitman’s health permitted, there would surely be many other Eakins likenesses of Walt. The old man was dying. Soon he could not even ‘sit’, couldn’t remain propped upright up for the countless hours Eakins always required. So the young painter hurried home, bringing his camera. A good thing. Thomas Hardy proved as great a poet as novelist; and Eakins was our first brilliant American artist equally expressive with a camera and a brush.
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