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Portrait of an Unknown Woman

August Cook

oil on canvas


24 x 34 inches

61 x 86 centimeters

Gift of Katherine & Howard A. Cook

about the work

Preliminary Color Sketch For a Nude, also known as Portrait of an  Unknown Woman, is an interesting work about which little documentary or  contextual information survives. Cook’s signature dates the work to  1976, 10 years after the artist’s retirement from his professorship at  Converse College. This indicates that the model depicted probably sat for it in Cook’s studio in Chesnee, South Carolina; a one-time  bootlegger’s roadhouse that the artist rebuilt. A former student of  Cook’s interviewed in 2000, Katie Hodge, recalled of him, “He painted  many beautiful women, but they [the portraits] weren’t beautiful. He  painted their character, as he saw them.”  

Sketch For a Nude is remarkable in that it reveals both Cook’s  academicism and this special ability of his, described by Hodge, to  capture something more real and enduring about the sitter than just a  likeness. Cook himself is said to have often remarked that paintings  were superior to photographs because photographs could never capture  this sense of “character”. Nevertheless, meticulously plotted grid  lines, visible around the edges of Sketch for a Nude, reveal Cook’s  careful attention to creating an accurate, analytically observed  rendering of forms. The same tendency is evident in the left shoulder,  where multiple layers of paint indicate Cook reworked it many times to  get an ideal shape.

about the artist

August Cook entered the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art, now known as  PAFA, in 1917, a year after the death of Ashcan School artist Thomas Eakins. The college’s  curriculum echoed that of traditional atelier training; students drew from plaster casts, then from live models and still lives – only moving  on to the traditionally more serious disciplines of portraiture,  landscape, and figure painting after a long process of refinement and  technical development. Cook may have acquired his taste for approaching  the art process with discipline and rigor at PAFA, or his experiences  there may have merely strengthened a pre-existing commitment to those  values; but discipline, rigor, and deliberation characterized his  life-long approach to both art education and art-making.

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