An influential painter, writer, and teacher, Kenyon Cox was perhaps best known for his murals that decorate state capitols and courthouses across the United States. The collection at Cooper Hewitt includes hundreds of his drawings, including six sketchbooks from his time as an art studentfirst in Ohio and then traveling to Parisoffering valuable insights into his development.

Self-portrait of the artist facing forward.

Drawing, Sketchbook Page: Historic Portrait No. 1 [Detail], 1875; Kenyon Cox (American, 1856-1919); Graphite on paper; 10.1 x 17.1 (4 x 6 ¾ in.); Bequest of Allyn Cox, 1984-86-4-6

Ye Ghost comes from an 1875 sketchbook containing around twenty self-portraits, a series he labels an “Historic Portrait Gallery.”  At the time, Cox was nineteen years old and living with relatives in Cincinnati while his parents were in Toledo for business.[1] Under the first self-portrait in the sketchbook, Cox added: “Historic portrait No. 1, ye great artist of Toledo, home sick.” The caption is meant as a joke, since there is more than one Toledo.  Cox is from Ohio, but the title could refer to El Greco, a sixteenth-century painter in Spain. Later sketches make the same joke, including Ye Great Artist of Toledo in his undershirt and Ye Starving Great Artist of Toledo.

Cox was fond of double meanings, and—looking at the caption for Historic portrait No. 1—it is difficult to tell if the artist intended the final line to be read as “homesick,” “home sick,” or both simultaneously. Cox may have been missing his family, or he may have been recovering from an illness. As a child, Cox had a series of surgeries to remove a facial tumor.  The operations left him unable to move the left side of his face, and he continued to struggle with health issues.  In later years, he grew a beard to cover the asymmetry in his face and preferred to be photographed from the right side.[2]

Given this context, Ye Ghost seems especially haunting. It captures the artist sketching a self-portrait using mirror, holding the sketchbook in his right hand.  His head is turned towards the right, hiding the left side of his face. He wears an over-sized shirt, indicating that he may recently have lost weight. Yet the inscription pokes fun at his gaunt appearance: the artist has not lost his sense of humor.

The drawings in Cox’s 1875 sketchbook reveal a mix of perseverance and playfulness. They show him trying to develop his skills as an artist, annotating his experiments in perspectival drawing and shading. When one elongated self-portrait in angular perspective smudged onto the opposite page, Cox took the opportunity to doodle a toga and laurel crown on top.

Though Cox was certainly preoccupied with self-portraits, he also sketched other people, animals, and even anatomical studies.  Given that we are now late into October, it seems appropriate to end with some of Ye Ghost’s skeletons.  Cox drew two anatomical studies of horses, likely copied from a book, and comically labeled them Dry Bones and Ye Night Mare. Ye Night Mare captures his wit, since the drawing is both a study of a horse (a mare) and the stuff of nightmares.

Sketch of the skeleton of a horse.

Drawing, Sketchbook Page: Ye Night Mare, 1875; Kenyon Cox (American, 1856-1919); Graphite on paper; 10.1 x 17.1 (4 x 6 ¾ in.); Bequest of Allyn Cox, 1984-86-4-17

Laura Fravel is the Curatorial Research Assistant (American Art) in the Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. 

[1] H. Wayne Morgan, Kenyon Cox, 1856-1919: A Life in American Art (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1994), p. 11.

[2] Ibid, p. 8

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