Among the greatest portrait painters of the late nineteenth century, Thomas Eakins found artistic inspiration in the subject of the individual, and throughout his life was drawn to subjects of unusual character and achievement. Eakins' focus sharpened considerably after 1885 when he resigned from his teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and began to devote himself almost exclusively to portrait painting. His sitters were friends who peopled his personal world, professionals he knew and admired in the intellectual, religious, and artistic circles of Philadelphia.
An Alsatian, Manuel Waldteufel emigrated to the United States late in life. A veteran of the Franco-Prussian war, Waldteufel had earned the title of Major in the French army. He was cousin to the well-known French composer Émile Waldteufel, and was himself a renowned violinist. While living in Philadelphia the musician befriended Thomas Eakins, and the present 1907 portrait was a product of the bond between the two artists.
Although Eakins himself never played a musical instrument, he had a lifelong connection to music, with his two sisters, Frances and Margaret, who played the piano, and his wife, Susan, an accomplished amateur pianist. He and his wife shared a love of music, regularly attending concerts and the opera, as well as hosting frequent musical evenings in their home. Eakins' affinity for the visual aspects of music was made manifest in at least twenty-two works depicting musicians in performance, including his iconic work The Cello Player of 1896 (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, fig.1), as well as eleven straight portraits of musicians and musicologists, including the present painting.
Eakins received extensive training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and in anatomical study at the Jefferson Medical College. As a result, his portraits are testaments to his allegiances to both art and science. As stated by John Wilmerding, Eakins "treated many of his later sitters, who were concert singers, musicians, art students or painters, as professionals akin to his scientists or physicians. Together, they all relied on the sensitive co-ordination of intelligence and action, of mind and body, of brain and hands...the human conduct Eakins most admired and celebrated was that which combined the poetry and creativity of art with the precision and control of science." (Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and the Heart of American Life, London, 1993, p.18)
In the present work as with almost every picture Eakins painted, light is the key agent in defining form. With it, he selectively highlights key elements of his sitter's anatomy. In depicting Waldteufel, Eakins strips away the embellishment that portraiture of this period often relied upon, in order to reveal what he perceived as the true essence of the sitter. In Eakins' sitters this essence often consisted of a combination of intelligence, character, and physical skill. Dr. Wilmerding notes that Eakins "carefully draws together the interrelated elements-triangulates as it were, in both composition and meaning-with light falling strongest across the side of a face, the open music sheets, and fingers lifting from the piano keys. Subtly, we enter a co-ordinated world of physical and mental activity." (Thomas Eakins and the Heart of American Life, p. 19) In the present painting, bright, clear light bathes the musician's steadied face and sure, solid hand which holds his upright violin. Eakins accentuates the sitter's isolation by placing him against a darkened background, capturing a moment of solitariness that registers powerfully in the subject's humble and unassuming gaze. Scholars have observed in Eakins' portraits the tendency of his sitters to be predominantly serious in tone, thoughtful, sober and meditative; absorbed in their thoughts, they reflect the temperament of an artist who was himself exceptionally serious.
Often considered one of the fathers of American Realism, Thomas Eakins painted his subjects with directness and a naturalism that eschewed notions of conventional beauty in favor of truth, intellect, and often candid humanity. In the present work, Waldteufel is unidealized; Eakins uses expressive brushwork in the face, exposing lines and creases in his forehead, ruddiness in his cheeks, and grayish whiskers on his chin. Kathleen A. Foster writes that, "Eakins typically exaggerated the rumpled, worn-out or ungainly aspects of his sitters. If, as Oscar Wilde remarked, all great portraits are effectively self-portraits, the generally introspective and depressed air of Eakins' sitters expresses Eakins' own sensibility as much as his honesty." (Thomas Eakins Rediscovered, New Haven, Connecticut, 1997, p. 231)
The striking light which Eakins has cast on the face reveals the sitter's physical imperfections, yet also asserts Waldteufel's status by portraying him in the time-honored manner of Old Master portraiture. Of equal importance to the artist's lessons at the Pennsylvania Academy and at Jefferson Medical College was his exposure while in Europe to the works of the Old Masters; in particular that of the Spanish Baroque painters Jusepe de Ribera and Diego Velázquez, and also seventeenth century Dutch portraitist Rembrandt van Rijn. Eakins' portraits, including the present work, indeed reveal a profound reverence for and emulation of the compositional style and power of the Old Master painters. Breaking from the Victorian and Impressionist modes of portraiture fashionable in American art of the period, Eakins in this portrait places himself within an art historical lineage of his predecessors of several centuries, the Dutch and Spanish Old Masters, while incorporating his personal vision of academic realism and a uniquely American spirit, making him one of the most ground-breaking portraitists of his time.