Self-Portrait

August Cook

oil on canvas

1955

17 x 20 inches

43 x 51 centimeters

Gift of Katherine & Howard A. Cook

about the work

August Cook’s 1955 Self-Portrait is a physical document of the artist  turning his notoriously stern, critical, and impartial eye on himself.  This can be said of all Cook’s self-portraits. But this particular work  is more than just a record of this process, and thus surpasses the  others. 1955 Self-Portrait certainly captures the imposing presence  which, over the years, caused more than one of Cook’s students to leave  his classroom or private studio in tears; but it also has an air of  closeness and intimacy, implied by the pieces relatively small size and  tight cropping.  


In 1955 Self-Portrait, the intimidating part of Cook’s personality is  evident in the artist’s tightly set jaw and in the rigidity of his brow,  both accented by the works’ sharp background gradient – which is itself  more like a continuation of Cook’s stern browline than a painted  effect. But at the same time, the slightly hunched set of the artist’s  shoulders and delicate rendering of his eyes have a softening effect on  the piece, making it more quiet and meditative. In addition, the  artist’s face takes up much of the painted surface of his head –  creating a sense of openness and frankness.  


The total effect is a complex, even contradictory one, not unlike the  presence of Cook himself, as recollected by one of his granddaughters in  2000, “I won’t pretend to tell you that my grandfather was always a  pleasant man. He was not….[but] growly bears are often very soft and  sweet inside.”

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.