The nude was the subject for which Cox was best known. He is also greatly celebrated for his mural work that very often included nudes or partially draped forms. In Cox's early years in Paris he became interested in plein aire painting, which in the 1870's was considered a modernist movement. He did not leave behind classical techniques and traditions but tried to integrate the two. He often worked out of doors and preferred an even light that did not overwhelm the subject. Cox imbued his female form with a classical notion of exaltation and loftiness yet firmly felt that there should be a realism that made them earthy. William Coffin, a close friend wrote "No painter amongst us has a purer sense of beauty in the ideal and no one has a keener perception of grace in form and distinction of color in nature."
Nude by River's Edge is dated 1908 and was given to Carlota Saint Gaudens presumably that same year. Carlota was the wife of Homer Saint Gaudens, the son of Augustus Saint Gaudens. Augustus was one of America's most important sculptors and Kenyon Cox was one of his closest friends. The two formed a friendship in their early years in Paris, around 1884, when Cox wrote an article for Century Magazine on the sculptor. Cox quickly came to feel the utmost regard for the sculptor and revered him as a kind of "harbinger of the second renaissance". Cox was so pleased with the portrait he had done of Augustus that he exhibited it at the Society of American Artists in 1888. Saint Gaudens appreciated the portrait and returned the favor in 1889 by doing a likeness of Cox in an oblong bronze medallion. In 1904 the portrait of Augustus was destroyed in a fire in Augustus' studio. It was in 1908 that Cox did another version of it as a memorial to Augustus, which was the year after the sculptor died.
There are no formal records that explain why Kenyon gave the painting to Carlota. It is known that Carlota married Homer around 1905 and spent her summers with Homer in Cornish, New Hampshire. Augustus had established himself in Cornish many years prior and spent his summers there and obviously brought the family. Cox was friendly with Homer and Carlota. Carlota was noted for her statuesque figure, blond hair, and high spirits, and Augustus was both pleased and fond of her. It is possible to speculate that Cox gave it as a gift after Augustus' death as a generous gesture. It is also possible that Carlota purchased it as a generous gesture on their part as Cox was always in need of money and living hand to mouth.
It is also possible that the woman in the painting is Cox's wife Louise as there is a resemblance. Whatever the circumstance under which this was given to Carlota it remains that it was done out of fondness. Cox was not the friendliest and most amiable of men. He only had so many close friends in his lifetime and Augustus meant the most to him. Cox was one of the speakers at Saint Gauden's funeral.
Private Collection, Newtown, Connecticut