KENNETH HAYES MILLER 1876-1952
By the Window, 1928
Oil on canvas, 24 X 20" (60.96 x 50.80 cm.)
Signed, lower left
Museum purchase, 991-0-108
Kenneth Hayes Miller became a committed painter of the American scene in 1923 when he moved his New York studio to the bustling neighborhood of shops and restaurants on East Fourteenth Street near Union Square. From that moment on his canvases are dominated by aspiring middle-class women whose lives he saw played out in the streets outside his studio windows. Miller tried to depict women objectively, refusing either to idealize their beauty or satirize their existence. In response to the young Reginald Marsh's complaint that the people on Fourteenth Street, whom Miller had encouraged his pupil to paint, were ugly, the artist replied simply, "They are ugly; they are people. Buy a pair of field glasses."'
Though prettier than most, the young woman in By the Window is typical of the robust, plump-faced women who populate Miller's mature paintings. Lost in a moment of reflection, the woman faces the viewer, pressed close to the surface of the picture plane, her back to the window from which one can easily imagine she has just turned and back through which she continues to cast a sad-eyed gaze. The stark glimpse of crowded buildings with a fire escape visible beyond the edge of the lush red drapery not only establishes the necessary urban setting for Miller's intimate drama, but helps create the picture's mood of lonely reverie.
The painting is filled with an air of both expectation and disappointment. Dressed up, perhaps to go out, the young woman waits longingly by the window. That for what or for whom she waits is quite probably linked to romance is subtly implied not only by the wistful attitude of the figure but by the way the woman lightly fingers her brooch, around which the shape of a heart has been created out of the swirling gold patterns on her dress. That the young woman calls to mind the countless women in paintings since the Renaissance who have waited for their destiny to find them is far from fortuitous.
Miller saw himself as far more than a simple, contemporary realist. A fierce defender of what he always referred to as "the Great Traditic," of Western art, he considered his paintings to be a continuation of a living tradition that stretched back through the Italian Renaissance to Classical Greece. He intended his figures to be seen simultaneously as the embodiment of modern American womanhood and the descendants of the women of Titian, Peter Paul Rubens and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. As a young painter still studying at the Art Students League, Miller had been inspired to this lofty aim by the work of the nineteenth-century French painter, Eugene Delacroix: "His paintings proved to me that it was possible to bridge the gulf between the old masters and moderns, and that is what I have been trying to do ever since." Miller's emulation of tradition even extended to his painting technique, which utilized the time-honored practice of building up the weight and solidity of his figures with layers of pigment and glazes.
Though critics often lamented Miller's refusal to give his paintings any decorative charm and many simply dismissed his "attempt to make Titian feel at home on Fourteenth Street and crowd Veronese into a department store," Miller was considered a leading urban realist by his contemporaries. He was one of the first artists to have his work represented in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art after its founding in 1929. As the central figure of the coterie of realist artists that became known as the Fourteenth Street School, Miller left a vital legacy through the work of his students Isabel Bishop and Reginald Marsh.
NANNETTE V. MACIEJUNES