Portrait of an Unknown Woman
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.