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Half-length Portrait of a Bearded Man with Arms Folded. Oil on cardboard. 69 x 48.5 cm. Circa 1870–75.
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The painter, sculptor and etcher, Frank Decker, was born into a German immigrant family that had settled in Kentucky. After the death of his father and his mother’s second marriage he assumed the name of his stepfather and was subsequently known as Frank Duveneck. In 1870 Duveneck went to Munich, where he studied painting under Wilhelm Diez at the Academy of Fine Arts. During his student days in Munich he struck up a close friendship with Wilhelm Leibl, on whose recommendation he took a vivid interest in the paintings of Diego Velásquez and Frans Hals. Like Leibl, Duveneck was a masterful alla prima painter, whose considerable technical skills are evidenced by a series of realistic portraits.
After a brief intermezzo in the United States, where he gained public recognition for his genre paintings and portraits, Duveneck decided in 1875 to resume his studies at the Munich Academy where, together with William Merritt Chase and J. Frank Currier, he became the leader of a large group of American art students. From 1878 Duveneck was influential as a teacher in Munich. His students – known as the “Duveneck Boys” – joined him in forming a study and working group in the Bavarian village of Polling. Duveneck subsequently taught in Florence and Venice. It was here around 1880 that he met James McNeill Whistler and Otto Bacher, who introduced him to etching and paved the way for the successful Venetian subjects he produced.
This atmospheric and intense half-length portrait of a bearded young man with its broad, powerful painting style and restrained, earthy colouring reveals the strong influence of Wilhelm Leibl’s style of painting. The palette is reduced to a few tones of green and brown, which are very effective in bringing out the subtly rendered nuances of the vivid complexion. Fine strokes with the tip of the brush suffice to characterise in masterly fashion the reflections of the light on the soft, fulsome beard and bushy hair. The monochrome, dark brown background is invigorated by occasional dashes of vermilion. In keeping with Leibl’s realism, the subject is a man of humble social origins. The simple grey smock marks him off as a worker or craftsman and as an item of clothing it makes a programmatic statement. Despite his physical activity the man is pensive and portrayed as being lost in thought. Like Leibl, Duveneck thus emphasises the dignity and spiritual depth of the simple working man.