Melanie Harwood, Senior Registrar
I like Jane Dean Kershaw. The Thomas Eakins portrait is a wonderful painting and I’ve always loved portraits, but not necessarily the sitter. In this instance I really like the person depicted. She doesn’t engage the viewer directly but rather gazes off to the side with a thoughtful and slightly bemused expression. The brushwork of the figure and background is loose and expressive while the face has a wonderful structure and translucent skin, the slightly protuberant eyes set off by brushstrokes of red.
When this portrait was painted Thomas Eakins had been teaching at the Art Students’ League for ten years – an organization founded by a group of his former Pennsylvania Academy students. Eakins resigned from the Academy having created a scandal by allowing young female students to draw nude male models. Ten years prior he managed to offend Victorian viewers with his now famous painting, The Gross Clinic – a graphically realistic and bloody depiction of an operating theater. Eakins was interested in realism and his early training with Jean Leon Gérôme and Leon Bonnat in Paris gave him a solid grounding in anatomy. His portraits are straightforward and unflinching and, unlike those of many of his contemporaries, not the least bit flattering.
To me, his depiction of Jane Kershaw is different. She was only 31 at the time and Eakins’ photograph of her shows a much younger and more timid woman. The eyes are arresting but she could be described as “mousy”. The figure in the painting, however, is of a handsome, older, and more assured individual. Her features are chiseled and the gaze, steady and calm. Thomas Eakins was notoriously difficult to sit for but the Murrays (Jane Kershaw finally married Samuel Murray in 1916) were long-time friends and his portrayal of her seems to reflect that. I hope Jane “grew” into her portrait.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.