by Brenda Roger
It is 1890 in Philadelphia. You are a famous chanteuse. Night after night, people crowd the theater to hear you sing. Compliments come in many forms. Why even a local painter, of some significance, wishes to paint your portrait.
Over eighty times, you are laced into your corset. It is covered over by heavy carnation pink silk brocade. The finest European lace peaks out from the divided skirt. With your tiny feet nestled into pink silk slippers you take your stance in the third floor studio of a Philadelphia row house.
On the first of these occasions comes an unusual request. Can you sing “O Rest in the Lord” while you stand there. He wants to see your chest heaving and your vocal chords dance. You of all people understand suffering for the sake of art. You comply with his wishes. Over and over again, you sing at his request. Eventually, the song uses very little of your concentration and you are left to contemplate the man. The Painter.
More than once, he has asked you to disrobe so that he can study your figure. He interjects this request into unrelated conversations with increasing frequency. You cannot abandon the portrait until it is finished, unless you want to cause your self and your mutual friends a great embarrassment. Your discomfort festers.
The two of you are on the top of a house that is stacked with his family members. One is a strange young girl named Ella. She is a niece you are told. The poor thing has a disturbed look in her eyes. No not in her eyes, behind them. During a break from posing one day, you take pity on the girl and try to speak with her. She calmly informs you that she fully intends to shoot her uncle the painter, but adds that she will shoot you first.
Has your fellow blogger just shared her brilliant new idea for a suspense novel? Oh, no, no, it is just the story behind The Concert Singer by Thomas Eakins. I couldn’t make it up on my best day.
The Concert Singer is currently on view as part of Off the Pedestal: The New Woman in the Art of Homer, Chase and Sargent, at the Frick Art & Historical Center. Any time one gets to see an Eakins in person, it is a gift from the universe. This time that is especially true for me because I have chosen this painting as the subject of my December 29th gallery talk. What a great excuse to spend hours dissecting new scholarship on a painter whose technique I deeply admire. In an effort to understand the painting and its creator, I have been devouring one of two new biographies on Thomas Eakins.
There are new biographies on artists all the time. New scholarship on Thomas Eakins is significant at this time because for many years, papers compiled by his early biographers have been purposely lost. As you may have guessed, the papers have recently surfaced and spawned a renewed interest in trying to sort out a most intriguing and sometimes disturbing character. The twists and turns have all the intrigue of a best seller or a blockbuster movie (Dan Brown, please don’t touch).
I’m not going to tell you how it ends. Just in case I decide to write it myself! Of course, you could attend the gallery talk at 2 PM on December 29 at the Frick Art Museum. I promise it will be free and disturbing.