The two sides of Walt Whitman

Xanthus Russell Smith's portrait of American writer Walt Whitman

Fig. 1: Xanthus Russell Smith’s portrait of American writer Walt Whitman

Xanthus Russell Smith painted the posthumous portrait of American writer Walt Whitman in 1897, several years after Whitman’s death.1 The oil study on canvas appears to be based off of a portrait photo which was taken by photographer George C. Cox in 1887. Whitman had loved this photo so much that he titled it “The Laughing Philosopher” and sold the other portraits from the session to supplement his income.2

Whitman lived from 1819 to 1892, spending the majority of his life on the east coast, dying in Camden, New Jersey, He was an American poet, essayist and journalist and as a humanist, his works are regarded as being transitory between transcendentalism and realism with elements of each idea present. He was concerned with politics and abolitionism (although this is not necessarily based on his belief in racial equality) and was wishy washy with his endorsement of abolitionism. There has also been debate over what Whitman’s sexuality was, although this began much later after his death and there is still disagreement among biographers as to whether or not Whitman had even had sexual experiences with men (although having or lacking experience should not be the validating factor as to whether a person truly identifies a certain way).

George C. Cox's photograph portrait of Walt Whitman

Fig. 3: George C. Cox’s photograph portrait of Walt Whitman

It is unknown as to whether or not Xanthus Russell Smith was acquainted with Whitman or was instead an admirer of his work. Smith was known for using small brushstrokes and sharp detail. The portrait can be interpreted by many different lenses, including artistic, historical and modern perspectives.

The portrait is composed fairly symmetrically, with Whitman’s shoulders facing at an angle away from the painter and his face squared to the front. The colors of the portrait are muted and neutral, lacking color except for around the eyes, which could be interpreted as a nod towards Whitman’s interpretation of the world, beliefs and persuasions (i.e. gray).

The focal point of the portrait is definitely the eyes. The viewer is drawn to them immediately, then down Whitman’s nose to his shock-white mustache and beard. The eyes are the most lifelike piece of the portrait and along with the rest of the face are almost completely centered in the portrait. However, this positioning is not so much a surprise as it is a given that the focal point of a portrait should be the subject’s face.

The painting is divided down the center of the frame, with one side of the background lighter than the other, and on Whitman’s face, the light patterns seem to be reversed, suggesting that there were two different light sources used in the photograph Smith used or in his interpretation of it. The use of light might be a nod to Whitman’s ideas and philosophy, which went between transcendentalism and realism or to the two sides of his sexuality and the way the public perceived him. The latter interpretation would however be carried into that of the modernist lens as few writers speculated on his sexuality in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Today, Whitman’s poetry has been set to music by many composers, including the music of John Adams, Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Kurt Weill, Roger Sessions and Ned Rorem.

You can view Xanthus Russell Smith’s portrait of Walt Whitman in the Flaten Art Museum reserve collection housed in St. Olaf College’s Dittman Center.


1. Smith, Xanthus Russell. Walt Whitman. 1897. Oil on canvas. 17.5 in x 13.5 in. Dittman Center : Second (2) Floor : Storage Vault : 19A : Flaten Art Museum.

2. Whitman, Walt. Lafayette in Brooklyn. New York: George D. Smith, 1905.

3. Cox, George C. Walt Whitman. 1887. Photograph.

Introspection Across Art Mediums

This painting found in the St. Olaf Flaten Art Museum suggests an immense feeling of age, wisdom, and timelessness.  The subject, Walt Whitman, is presented in all shades of brown and grey, most of his body in shadow and the background irrelevant.

Walt Whitman, Xanthus Russell Smith

Walt Whitman, Xanthus Russell Smith

The artist, Xanthus Russell Smith, was known to be a Civil War Painter, showcasing the battles and details of wartime.  But a quick search shows that he was also an avid landscape artist, portraying the lush beauty of the New England countryside in rich detail.

New England Landscape, Xanthus Russell Smith

New England Landscape, Xanthus Russell Smith

In fact, a closer look at the Whitman painting reveals more of the earthy tones of the artist.  Whitman is not dressed for battle, but instead maybe for an introspective walk through the forest.

It is this sense of introspection that I would like to focus on.  Many other art forms of the time, including MacDowell’s Woodland Sketches, also were introspective and communicated the viewpoint of the creator.  Nature was a huge source of inspiration for these artists, as evident in Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.”

“Song of the Open Road,” Walt Whitman


Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.


Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,

Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,

Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,

Strong and content I travel the open road.


The earth, that is sufficient,

I do not want the constellations any nearer,

I know they are very well where they are,

I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

Nature provided the time and peace for artists to reflect upon their lives and their place in the universe.  Their creations presented an individualized viewpoint of the world regardless of whether or not others understood.  Smith’s painting showcases a man who knows all.  And in his own particular way, Smith portrays how he sees Whitman, as all other artists share their specialized view of the world.

Portrait of the American Artist as an Old Man

When I walked into Print Study Room in St. Olaf College’s Dittman Center, the first painting that caught my eye was this one of Walt Whitman. I was drawn to it because I recognized the subject. I can’t say I knew exactly what Whitman looked like beforehand, but I knew figure in the portrait was probably him. A wise looking older man with a beard of pure white wearing simple, earth-toned clothes–now this had to be America’s transcendental literary hero!

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Xanthus Russel Smith, “Walt Whitman.” Oil on canvas, St. Olaf College Tetlie Collection.

So, I was not surprised to pull a tag from behind the frame that read “Walt Whitman;” nor was I surprised to learn that the painter, Xanthus Russel Smith, was best known for his Civil War paintings. Why? Because this painting is a portrait. Portraits are created with intent. Unlike a beautiful landscape a painter happens upon or an idea a painter wants to portray visually, a portrait exists to honor a person. They are often planned and commissioned and sometimes even created for a specific room or occasion. Portraits depict heroes. That is why it made sense that the painter of this portrait also made Civil War paintings. Smith must have been interested in portraying what heroism in America looked like 19th century, and he chose Walt Whitman to be one such example.

My second guess, if this had not been Whitman, was Charles Ives. If not America’s literary hero, perhaps it was America’s musical hero! Ives certainly would have been deemed worthy of a portrait as well. Though the style of the clothing looked a bit old, I thought it could be Ives because of the subject’s white beard and older age. Then, I realized that–though the portrait could have been Whitman or Ives because they are both figures of American heroism–the main reason I knew it was either Whitman or Ives was because the man in the portrait was old. Why are the most well-known depictions of both Whitman and Ives of them as old men?

It must be because both of them were exalted by artists of the younger generation. Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac adopted his vagabond lifestyle and imitated his anaphoric style in their own writing. Ezra Pound said of Whitman, “he is America.” So though Whitman was writing in the 19th century, his works became very popular in the 20th century. Similarly, Ives was composing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but his works did not become popular until the mid 20th century, when composers like Henry Cowell and Aaron Copland promoted them.

Both Whitman and Ives were recognized long after their work was published and held up as examples of the American spirit. They both embodied the American tradition of individualism, originality, and self-sufficiency. Had Whitman lived in Massachusetts, he perhaps could have made it into Ives’s Concord Sonata. Passing down these American traits, like father and son, Whitman and Ives make me wonder if we have a current day example of the American artist as an old (white) man. Clint Eastwood? Or have we moved beyond this narrow definition of America (at least now we recognize that Whitman was gay!) to include American heros of different ethnicities, races, genders, sexualities, and ages? Who do we paint portraits of today?