Exploring Augustus Vincent Tack’s artwork of Helen Keller
By Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator
In recognition of Women’s History Month, we hope that you enjoy this portrait from the collection.
Augustus Vincent Tack (American, 1870–1949)
Portrait of Helen Keller, 1945
Oil on canvas
24 x 21 in.
Collection of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
Gift of Solton Engel, A0497, 45.0009
In this half-length portrait of Helen Keller (1880–1968), Augustus Vincent Tack depicted his sitter toward the end of her life. Using a complementary color palette of green and blue, he aptly captured her personality and dignified demeanor. Tack accurately rendered her physical features and emphasized her sober, focused expression which conveys resolve and composure. He painted this work after a larger, full-length portrait of Keller held by the Fogg Museum (Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA, see below). In the Fogg canvas, Keller sits in a grand chair and places her hand on an open book that refers to her proficiency in using braille and fingerspelling to communicate.
At nineteen months old, Keller suffered a severe illness that caused her to lose her sight and hearing. With the assistance of her life-long companion and teacher, Anne Sullivan (1866–1936, also partially blind), Keller persevered and pursued an ambitious career as an author, lecturer, social activist, and advocate for people with disabilities. Keller’s and Sullivan’s story is recounted in the renowned autobiography, The Story of My Life (1903). Among her many achievements, Keller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 by Lyndon B. Johnson and she was elected into the National Women’s Hall of Fame at the New York World’s Fair in 1965.
Tack is renowned for his portraits and avant-garde abstract paintings. His chief patron was Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection (Washington, DC), an institution which remains the chief repository for the artist’s work. From November to December 1938, the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts held a retrospective exhibition of Tack’s work that included his portraits, drawings, and paintings of abstract and religious subjects. Tack studied and taught at the Arts Students League in New York, became involved with the Deerfield Artist Colony (Massachusetts), and is renowned for his portraits of Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The artist was first introduced to the museum by Hagerstown engineer, John B. Ferguson, Sr., after he visited the artist’s New York studio during the 1930s. Subsequently, Ferguson helped organize Tack’s 1938 exhibition with the museum’s former Director, Richard Carl Medford, facilitated the artist’s association with the Hagerstown community, and worked with the Board of Trustees to appoint him as an Honorary Trustee in the 1940s. Subsequently, Tack befriended Mrs. William T. Hamilton, Jr., former President of the Board, who fondly recalled the artist in a letter:
“Mr. Tack was a valued friend of our museum and of mine. I knew his whole family…the museum has a head and bust of Helen Keller taken from the magnificent large portrait of her, which is owned by the Fogg Museum. Mr. Tack very graciously painted this of Miss Keller and contributed it to us, and she and I frequently met in his Washington studio.”
To learn more about Keller and Tack, click this link for a Curator’s Den video on the museum’s YouTube page:
Augustus Vincent Tack
Helen Keller (1880-1968), 1941
Oil on canvas
Collection of Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum
Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943
This WeekendArt is sponsored by Mr. & Mrs. Paul C. Mellott, Jr.