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Arts of North America

Art created in North America includes objects made by native cultures of the present-day United States and Canada; paintings and decorative arts produced during colonial times; 18th- and 19th-century masterpieces; and the work of contemporary artists and photographers.

American, 1844 - 1916
Portrait of John B. Gest
Oil on canvas

40 x 30 inches

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Museum purchase with funds provided by
the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund

Arts of North America

Thomas Eakins’s late portraits, which include this powerful likeness, are among the artist’s most poignant works. Here, Eakins focuses upon the two elements of portraiture traditionally deemed most important: heads and hands. The piercing gaze and the taut, sinewy hands of the aging subject carry the emotional weight of the painting and testify to Eakins’s life-long commitment to portraying the human condition in all its heroism and frailty.

Commissioned from Eakins by the Fidelity Trust Company for $700, this portrait of Fidelity’s president, John B. Gest, has little to do with what one might think of as corporate portraiture: bland, formulaic images of seated, appropriately attired men intended to portray serious-minded, upstanding members of the community. Indeed, Gest performed the role to a T, serving as a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the Presbyterian Hospital in Philadelphia, in addition to fulfilling his duties at the financial company he served. However, by turning Gest’s gaze away from the viewer, Eakins turns any possible engagement with the sitter into a study and an observation of the visible effects of old age. This portrait reveals the artist’s intense devotion to realism through its truthful accuracy and penetrating portrayal of the subject's character.