Thomas Eakins and the Making of Walt Whitman’s Death Mask
Julie Mellby, Graphic Arts Curator; Karl Kusserow, John Wilmerding Curator of American Art
June 26, 2020 · 2:00 pm-3:00 pm · via Zoom
Princeton University Library
Graphic Arts Curator Julie Mellby will trace the 19th-century fascination with post-mortem portraiture and events that led to the making of the Walt Whitman death mask. Following the talk, Julie will be joined by Karl Kusserow, John Wilmerding Curator of American Art, Princeton University Art Museum, for a conversation about Thomas Eakins and late 19th-century portraiture.
During the last five years of Walt Whitman’s life, Thomas Eakins was a frequent guest at the poet’s Camden home where Whitman agreed to sit for an oil portrait. Eakins’ protégé Samuel Murray often joined them, photographing Whitman in preparation for a sculpted bust. On the day Whitman died, March 26, 1892, Eakins and Murray gathered all the necessary supplies to cast his face in plaster and early the next morning crossed the Delaware River, walking the final blocks to 330 Mickle Street. At least three death masks survive from the matrix they produced that day, one preserved at the Princeton University Library.
Kusserow’s exhibitions include Inner Sanctum: Memory and Meaning in Princeton’s Faculty Room at Nassau Hall (2010); Picturing Power: Portraiture and its Uses in the New York Chamber of Commerce (2013); and most recently Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment (2018), a traveling exhibition reexamining 18th-21st-century American art in relation to issues of ecology and environmental history.