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Painters and Painting

Whitman's engagement with the visual arts grew out of his experiences as a journalist in Brooklyn in the 1840s and 1850s. He once admitted spending "[l]ong, long half hours" in front of a single painting (qtd. in Rubin 339) and in his journalistic rambles through Manhattan and Brooklyn focused nearly as much attention on painting as on photography. Whitman valued the creative process and individual achievement over the art product and considered painting's spiritual essence more important than its technical proficiency. Landscape painting, portraiture, and religious subjects elicited his strongest responses, and although he often expressed as much sympathy for a beautifully illustrated book or an inexpensive reproduction as for an original painting, he never wavered in his commitment to the essentiality of the arts in a democracy.

In his reviews, Whitman reserved special praise for the efforts of two of his friends, genre painter Walter Libbey and landscapist Jesse Talbot. He particularly admired the simplicity and democratic egalitarianism implicit in Libbey's rural genre scenes. Tonal gradations resulting from the close observation of nature, muted outlines and a "richness of coloring" adjusted to the scene's temporal requirements were among the formal qualities Whitman admired most (Uncollected 1:238).

Whitman regularly reviewed New York's principal art exhibitions and in 1850 and 1851 championed the activities of the struggling Brooklyn Art Union. Like the larger and more established American Art Union, whose president in the mid-1840s was Whitman's friend, William Cullen Bryant, the Brooklyn Art Union sponsored exhibitions administered by the artists themselves. Whitman valued both the visual stimulation and the communal spirit manifest in such endeavors and called for the creation of "a close phalanx [of artists], ardent, radical and progressive" to strengthen this country's artistic base (Uncollected 1:237). On 31 March 1851 Whitman delivered the keynote address at the organization's first annual distribution of prizes. In this, his only lecture on art, Whitman echoed Emerson in his emphasis on art's moral value and his equation between the "perfect man" and the "perfect artist" (Uncollected 1:243). Whitman also stressed art's mediating presence, especially with regard to death, a theme he would develop further in his poetry. Had the federal government not forced the closure of all art unions before the Brooklyn Art Union elected its president, Whitman might well have been chosen, as his friends had placed his name in nomination for the post.

Whitman's fascination with the power inscribed in visual images contributed significantly toward the visual emphasis of his poetry. Scholars have discussed a variety of thematic and structural affinities between Whitman's verse and the contemporaneous artistic modes of genre painting, the diorama, luminism, realism, and impressionism. James Dougherty notes a shift toward a more extended and conventional pictorialist image in Whitman's later poems. At least two of Whitman's last poems, "The Dismantled Ship" and "Death's Valley," were written in response to specific paintings, the last a work by American landscape painter George Inness.

After the Civil War, with both his health and poetic skills in decline, Whitman demonstrated renewed interest in the visual arts. In Specimen Days he described spending "two rapt hours" in 1881 viewing a large private collection of the paintings and pastels of the French Barbizon painter Jean-François Millet (Prose Works 1:267). Millet's visually subdued yet tonally rich landscapes of French peasants toiling in the fields were phenomenally popular with the American public, who, like Whitman, were attracted by the works' moral and ethical suasion. Years later Whitman confided to Horace Traubel that the thing that most impressed him in Millet's work "was the untold something behind all that was depicted—an essence, a suggestion, an indirection, leading off into the immortal mysteries" (With Walt Whitman 2:407). This, coupled with the sympathetic portrayal of ordinary laborers, prompted Whitman to proclaim Leaves of Grass "only Millet in another form" (With Walt Whitman 1:7).

In painting as in photography, Whitman repeatedly sought visual analogues for his verse, particularly in the painted portraits which he eagerly encouraged and for which he willingly sat. Walter Libbey was the first artist to paint Whitman's portrait from life, and in 1859 Whitman sat for his friend the New York artist Charles Hine. An engraved version of Hine's portrait was chosen as the frontispiece for the 1860 Leaves of Grass, the only time Whitman selected a painting as a frontispiece.

During the 1870s and 1880s Whitman enjoyed increasing contact with painters, among them Colonel John R. Johnston, a Camden neighbor with whom he often shared Sunday dinner, and Herbert Gilchrist, son of Whitman's British admirer, Anne Gilchrist. Gilchrist produced at least three oil paintings of the poet, in addition to several sketches of Whitman at Timber Creek and an intaglio which Richard Maurice Bucke chose as the frontispiece for his 1883 Whitman biography. Gilchrist's most successful effort was the seated Whitman portrait (University of Pennsylvania), painted on his return visit in 1887. Painted with the loose brushwork and lighter palette adapted from the impressionists, the painting was widely criticized by Whitman and his circle, who dubbed it the "parlor" Whitman (With Walt Whitman 1:39) and mocked the intrusion of the Italian curls into the poet's hair and beard. Whitman was particularly dissatisfied with the portrait's acquiescence to the orthodoxy of the academy, claiming "the Walt Whitman of that picture lacks guts" (With Walt Whitman 1:154).

Whitman was no more complimentary about the portrait completed under commission from Scribner's Monthly by the rising young American portraitist John White Alexander. Alexander sketched Whitman at his home in February 1886, but in the finished portrait (Metropolitan Museum of Art) abandoned the intimacy and informality of the sketch, which showed Whitman in his reading glasses, for a more distant and patriarchal representation. Alexander's portrait, although generally admired by critics since its completion in 1889, masks Whitman's roughness behind a facade of impeccable dignity and restraint. Whitman harshly criticized the work's idealized presence as representative of what he perceived as the all-too-common tendency among artists to disregard the "real" in favor of the "ideal."

Whitman's favorite among the portrait painters was the Philadelphia-born Thomas Eakins, with whom he shared a dedication to the materiality of the human form and a fascination with the physiognomy of the human countenance. A black and white print of Eakins's gripping Gross Clinic, given him by the painter, graced Whitman's parlor, testimony both to their love of science and their history of rejection by their peers. Eakins's half-length portrait of the poet (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), which the two men owned jointly, inaugurated the artist's late portrait manner. The painting resonates with the poignancy of old age, a theme with which Whitman himself was grappling in several of the poems in November Boughs, published the same year. Whitman especially appreciated the work's simplicity and what he held to be its unmediated presence. As he confided to Traubel, "the subject is not titivated, not artified, not 'improved'—but given simply as in nature" (With Walt Whitman 6:416).

Eakins visited Whitman regularly following the completion of the portrait and painted portraits of several Whitman associates, including Talcott Williams, who had introduced them. Two of Eakins's associates, sculptors William R. O'Donovan and Samuel Murray (with whom Eakins fashioned Whitman's death mask) sculpted busts of Whitman in Eakins's studio, and it was there, following Whitman's funeral, that Bucke and others gathered to hear Whitman's friend Weda Cook, a young Camden singer, sing "O Captain! My Captain!"

In the twentieth century Whitman's verse has stimulated considerable response among painters of widely varying stylistic, thematic, and philosophical persuasions. Especially in the early decades of the century, such American painters as Robert Henri, Marsden Hartley, and Joseph Stella discovered in Whitman's poetry an inspiring native voice for their excursions into the unmapped terrain of visual modernism.


Alcaro, Marion Walker. Walt Whitman's Mrs. G: A Biography of Ann Gilchrist. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1991.

Dougherty, James. Walt Whitman and the Citizen's Eye. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1993.

Miller, Edwin Haviland, ed. The Artistic Legacy of Walt Whitman. New York: New York UP, 1969.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Rubin, Joseph Jay. The Historic Whitman. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1973.

Sill, Geoffrey M., and Roberta K. Tarbell, eds. Walt Whitman and the Visual Arts. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1992.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. 1906. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961; Vol. 2. 1908. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961; Vol. 6. Ed. Gertrude Traubel and William White. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982.

Whitman, Walt. The Gathering of the Forces. Ed. Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. 2 vols. New York: Putnam, 1920.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.

____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. Ed. Emory Holloway. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1921.

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