oil on canvas
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.