19TH CENTURY ART
SCRIPT – LETITIA WILSON JORDAN
How do artists decide who to paint portraits of? Well, here’s the story of how Thomas Eakins came to paint the portrait of Letitia Wilson Jordan.
SFX: GAY PARTY SOUNDS WITH MUSIC
It’s spring, 1888...a party of the elite of Philadelphia society. The guests include the artist and teacher Thomas Eakins. He always observes the world with an artist’s eye, and across the room he finds himself drawn again and again to a young woman. She turns out to be the sister of his friend David Wilson Jordan. He tells David that he wants to paint his sister, Letitia, exactly as she looks at the party. David tells Letitia, who’s hesitant. She’s heard that other people Eakins painted didn’t like the way they looked in their portraits. That’s true, and in fact has kept Eakins from being commercially successful as a portraitist. But Letitia is flattered to be asked, and eventually agrees to a series of sittings where she poses for Eakins, wearing the exact clothes she wore at the party.
And now here’s a verbal description of the portrait of Letitia Wilson Jordan.
It’s an oil painting on canvas, 5 feet tall and 3 and a half feet wide.
It’s almost a full-length portrait and we can see Letitia from the top of her head down to just below her knees. There’s nothing else in the painting except her. The background is a flat dark brown wall.
In the following description, left and right refer to your left and right as you face the painting.
She’s standing, facing us, but turned about 45 degrees to the right. She wears a gauzy, black, full-length gown with ruffles around the neckline at the shoulders. She wears gloves, yellowish-brown, that cover her hands and forearms. And around her she drapes a Japanese shawl, blue-grey in color. The ends of the shawl are folded over her forearms. In her hands at her waist she holds a dark brown fan, fully opened. Her hair is black, pulled back and up and tied behind her head. She wears a red ribbon around neck, tied with a bow at the front. She appears to be wearing red lipstick.
She’s not smiling and she appears to be staring at something outside the right side of the frame. The red of her lips and the red ribbon around her neck stand out vividly against all the darkness...her black dress, the shawl, the fan, and the dark background of the wall behind her.
In this painting, a bright light source is coming from the right, outside of the frame. It highlights dramatically the whiteness of her face, neck, and upper arms. The light is so focused from the right that her face creates a dark shadow on the right side of her head, which is to your left.
Eakins signed the finished painting on the lower right. It reads
"TO MY FRIEND -- D.W. JORDAN – EAKINS ‘88"
At the time Eakins painted, most portraits of women were flattering, showing them as beautiful, glamorous, and fashionable. Eakins portrait of Letitia Wilson Jordan is different. Her dress is fashionable and elegant. But the look on her face reveals something else about her. She’s definitely not smiling. She stares in a pose that’s somewhat haunting. Could she be daydreaming? Weary? Or sad? Maybe bored? The contrast between Jordan's elegant clothes and her attitude results in a powerful, direct portrait.
In all of his portraits, Eakins wished to portray the inner life of the person as well as their external appearance. So his paintings are both realistic and expressive. His paintings use a dramatic play of light and darkness, like in this portrait,. Eakins was inspired to this technique by studying the works of Diego Velazquez, a seventeenth-century Spanish artist.
During this lifetime, Eakins was respected by other artists and some critics, but he never had a wide popular following. Today, he’s considered one of the greatest American painters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.