Recumbent Figure
by Kenneth Hayes Miller
Miller_Recumbent-COL.MA-1931.237
Kenneth Hayes Miller (American, 1876-1952), Recumbent Figure, 1910-11. Oil on canvas, 12 ½ x 16 5/8 in. (31.8 x 42.5 cm). Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio: Gift of Ferdinand Howald 1931.184

Kenneth Hayes Miller,
Recumbent Figure, 1910-11
Oil on canvas, 12 ½ x 16 5/8 in.
Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Gift of Ferdinand Howland 1931.184

The subject

Though his reputation is tied to subjects drawn from contemporary urban life, Miller insisted that the human body itself was his chief interest. [1] Recumbent Figure demonstrates the centrality of the human figure in Miller’s oeuvre from the beginning of his career.

The inspiration

As early as 1897 Miller commented that the Renaissance was “the source that I find most fruitful in inspiration and example,” and much like his later images of female shoppers, Recumbent Figure hearkens to Renaissance precedents in the form’s solidity and sculptural presence. [2] However, the painting’s dreamlike atmosphere is in keeping with the romantic, symbolist works that he produced around the time of the Armory Show.

Poetic idylls

Miller’s poetic idylls have frequently been compared to the work of Arthur B. Davies and Bryson Burroughs but they are more directly related to Miller’s friendship with the visionary painter Albert Pinkham Ryder, whose portrait Miller painted in 1913. [3]

To the Armory Show

This is one of four paintings Miller lent to the Armory Show. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the exhibition and he appreciated the introduction of avant-garde art in the United States.  However, three years later Miller had become dismayed by the dominance of abstraction in the New York art scene. “The town is full of Cubist and Futurist exhibitions now,” he lamented. “Just now anything [that] can be even vaguely identified with nature or reality is dubbed ‘illustration.’  All subject is, of course, ‘banal.’ I like the things, or some of them, but don’t believe all need follow, certainly. Enough are doing that.” [4]

[1] In a letter to Mrs. Grace Pagano, dated June 12, 1944, Kenneth Hayes Miller Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Miller wrote: “I am not interested in subject matter of any particular kind. I touch contemporary life in themes relating to shopping, but what has absorbed me has always been simply the body…” Quoted in “The Kenneth Hayes Miller Papers,” Archives of American Art Journal 12:2 (1973), 23.

[2] Letter dated November 9, 1897, Kenneth Hayes Miller Papers, quoted in “The Kenneth Hayes Miller Papers,” 20.

[3] Lincoln Rothschild, To Keep Art Alive: The Effort of Kenneth Hayes Miller, American Painter (1876-1952) (Philadelphia: The Art Alliance Press in Association with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974), 26.

[4] Kenneth Hayes Miller Papers, quoted in “The Kenneth Hayes Miller Papers,” 21-23.

Kenneth Hayes Miller (1876-1952)

The prominent American painter and teacher Kenneth Hayes Miller was born in Oneida, New York, and trained at the New York School of Art and the Art Students League. [1] He studied with some of the leading painters of the Gilded Age, including William Merritt Chase, Kenyon Cox and H. Siddons Mowbray, who encouraged a respect for tradition and craft that would become a hallmark of Miller’s mature style. After a trip to Europe in 1899, Miller was invited to teach at the New York School of Art, where he remained until 1911. From there he moved to the Art Students League, where he taught intermittently until 1951. Miller’s greatest legacy was arguably as a teacher and many of his students became well-known painters, including Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper, and Reginald Marsh.

Miller is best known for his depictions of robust, middle-class women in the 1920s and 30s. Though his reputation is tied to subjects drawn from contemporary urban life, Miller insisted that the human body itself was his chief interest. [2] Throughout his career his work remained representational and he was devoted to traditional oil painting techniques such as underpainting and glazing, both of which were practiced in the Italian Renaissance. [3] Nonetheless, in 1913 he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Armory Show and he appreciated the introduction of new styles in the United States. In a March 1913 letter to Rockwell Kent, Miller praised the exhibition’s “broadening influence” for accomplishing “in a few weeks what in the ordinary course would have taken as many years. It was like setting off a blast of dynamite in a cramped place- it blew everything wide open. I feel that art can really be free here now.” [4]

[1] See Lincoln Rothschild, To Keep Art Alive: The Effort of Kenneth Hayes Miller, American Painter (1876-1952) (Philadelphia: The Art Alliance Press in Association with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974).

[2] In a letter to Mrs. Grace Pagano, dated June 12, 1944, in the Kenneth Hayes Miller Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Miller wrote: “I am not interested in subject matter of any particular kind. I touch contemporary life in themes relating to shopping, but what has absorbed me has always been simply the body…” Quoted in “The Kenneth Hayes Miller Papers,” Archives of American Art Journal  12:2 (1973), 23.

[3] Lloyd Goodrich, Kenneth Hayes Miller (New York: Arts Publishing Corporation, 1930), 9.

[4] Letter to Rockwell Kent, March 1913, Kenneth Hayes Miller Papers,  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, quoted in “The Kenneth Hayes Miller Papers,” 21-23.

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