Published: August 20, 2002
By Stephen May
NEW YORK CITY – “Eakins,” said Walt Whitman, “is not a painter; he is a force.” The poet’s appraisal, recognizing the artist’s powerful character and fiercely independent dedication to his art, has held up well over the years.
Thomas Eakins’s passion for truth, adherence to ideals and commitment to artistic freedom got him into a lot of trouble, but he created an enduring and inspiring legacy. Although not a popular artist in his lifetime, the current retrospective that concludes its international tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 2 confirms his greatness. He was the strongest American figure painter of his era and the realist painter of our art history.
“Thomas Eakins” has been astutely organized by Darrel Sewell, who recently retired as the Robert L. McNeil, Jr, Curator of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He has devoted three decades of study to Eakins and the results shine through clearly in this splendid retrospective. It opened at the Philadelphia Museum last fall and traveled to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris before concluding its tour in New York. At the Metropolitan Museum, the exhibition was organized by H. Barbara Weinberg, curator of American paintings and sculpture, and Jeff L. Rosenheim, assistant curator of photographs. There is an invaluable accompanying catalog.
On view at the Met are more than 150 works representing every major theme explored by Eakins, including familiar images of rowers, boxers, musicians, surgeons, artists, teachers, clergymen and collectors. Some 60 photographs by Eakins and his circle, along with newly discovered information about the role of photography in his work, provide added insights into the artist’s methods and achievements.
The exhibition has received an enthusiastic response at each venue. This is particularly notable for Paris; French critics normally have little use for pre-World War II American art.
As a man and an artist Eakins (1844-1916) was a complex figure of controversy and paradox. He accepted the status quo, spending nearly all his life in his native Philadelphia, mostly in the same house. Breaking with tradition, he based his art on science, mathematics and the intellect. He pioneered in photographic techniques, championed the nude model and executed supremely realistic canvases that shocked the prudish Victorian society of his day.
Ostracized by the art establishment, denied portrait commissions and ignored by the buying public, Eakins sold few paintings in his lifetime. A small private income from his father enabled him to survive and paint what he wanted.
Born in Philadelphia, Eakins lived there almost his entire life, and indeed made few trips beyond that area. The son of a writing master and calligraphy teacher, whose strong, kindly face and delicate hands are affectionately recorded in “The Writing Master” (1882), young Tom excelled in mechanical drawing in school, copied plaster casts while studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and attended anatomy classes at Philadelphia’s Jefferson Medical College.
In 1866 he traveled to Paris, where he studied the nude model with academic stalwart Jean-Léon Gérôme at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. He gained even more inspiration from the austerely realistic work of Jose de Ribera and Diego Velázquez that he saw during several months in Spain. Eakins’s moving likeness, ‘The Thinker (Portrait of Louis N. Kenton)” (1900) depicts his brother-in-law as an introspective, scholarly figure posed nonchalantly with his hands thrust into his pockets and his gaze turned downward. It echoes the composition and color harmonies of Velázquez’s full-length portraits.
On the basis of his European experiences, Eakins concluded that in his own art he would combine the best aspects of the French Academic and Spanish Baroque traditions. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who sought artistic fulfillment abroad, Eakins chose to document the familiar and the contemporary in his homeland.
Returning to the City of Brotherly Love in 1870, the 26-year-old aspiring artist moved back into his family home at 1729 Mount Vernon Street, where he resided – except for two years – until his death nearly a half century later. At the beginning and end of his career he had a studio on the top floor. The substantial, three-story red brick townhouse, still structurally sound, is owned by the city of Philadelphia, but sadly has never been turned into a house museum honoring its distinguished native son.
Having grown up near the Schuylkill River, which flows through Philadelphia, Eakins became an accomplished rower and keen observer of rowing races on the river. Executed with crystalline preciseness, “The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull)” (1871), is a scintillating, carefully plotted depiction of the artist’s boyhood friend at the site of his rowing victories on the river. That is Eakins himself in the distance manning his own shell. One of the great images in our art history, this is, as art historian Marc Simpson observes in the exhibition catalog, “an astonishing debut.”
Eakins devoted an enormous amount of time and effort to creating painstakingly detailed and accurate perspective drawings prior to executing a series of oil paintings and watercolors of the celebrated professional scullers Bernard (Barney) Biglin and, especially, his brother John. “John Biglin in a Single Scull” (1873-74), “The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake-Boat” (1873) and “The Pair-Oared Shell” (1872) capture the grace, musculature and coordination of these outstanding oarsmen.
Another innovative subject that appealed to the athletic artist was baseball, which in the late Nineteenth Century was evolving as a professional sport. Eakins’s watercolor “Baseball Players Practicing” (1875) shows members of the Philadelphia Athletics taking batting practice.
Years later Eakins, an avid boxing fan, explored the then-controversial theme of prize-fighting in several paintings. Focusing on a local fighter named Billy Smith and the interior of The Arena where he often boxed, Eakins created views such as “Between the Rounds” (1898-99). These images capture the atmosphere and to some extent the violence of the sport, which was an unheard of subject for a serious artist at the time.
As Wesleyan University art historian Elizabeth Milroy points out in her catalog essay, Philadelphia was “the place that was dear to his heart,” as was the Schuylkill River, “along which he lived a long and productive life.” Eakins memorialized his home city in numerous works, most interestingly in two homages to pioneering Philadelphia sculptor William Rush, best known for his late Eighteenth Century and early Nineteenth Century allegorical figures.
After making a series of wax models and executing many sketches and oil studies, Eakins created the complex painting “William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River” (1876-77). It shows the sculptor at work in his studio on a figure representing the river – a nymph and bittern – that was placed in the Fairmount Waterworks. In the foreground is a nude female model with her back to viewers, her clothes draped over a chair and a chaperone knitting by her side. It is a heartfelt tribute to Rush, an exemplar of the citizen-artist, in which Eakins sought “to convey his own commitment to study from the live model and his sense of connection to Philadelphia’s artistic traditions,” writes Milroy.
Eakins returned to this theme three decades later, with a fascinatingly different composition, “William Rush and His Model” (circa 1908). The artist is now assisting his nude model, who faces the viewer, as she descends from the posing podium. The figure of the chaperone has been eliminated “to focus on the artist, whose burly physique and stooped shoulders are enough like those of the aging Eakins to suggest a self-portrait,” Milroy observes. The young woman, now turned to face us, “becomes the Schuylkill enlivened and personified, interacting directly with the artist, who is now Eakins himself,” concludes Milroy.
In “A May Morning in the Park (The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand)” (1879-80), Eakins depicted a festive coach drive in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. It features brilliant, sun-splashed colors set against the greenery of the park’s foliage and clear delineations of the movements of the horses. This seemingly spontaneous, joyous picture actually resulted from numerous preparatory sketches, sequential photographs inspired by Eadward Muybridge, and wax sculptures of horse foot positions. It is a real beauty.
Venturing outside the city, Eakins, an avid outdoorsman, early on recorded hunters and their helpers in “Starting Out After Rail” (1874) and “Pushing for Rail” (1874). He also celebrated the pleasures of sailing on nearby rivers in carefully composed canvases like “Sailboats Racing on the Delaware” (1874).
Inevitably, the high point of this large exhibition is “The Gross Clinic” (1875), a 96 by 78½- inch tour de force that took the 31-year-old painter nearly a year to complete. It is a subdued but brilliantly composed portrayal of the eminent surgeon Dr Samuel D. Gross performing an operation under the watchful eyes of assistants and students. A bold, thickly painted work that employs few touches of bright color, it draws the viewer into the vast, dim operating amphitheater of Jefferson Medical College, where strong light from the skylight falls on the doctor’s grizzled hair, bloody fingers and scalpel, and the exposed wound of the patient. Recording the scene at the far right is Eakins himself.
“The Gross Clinic” is at once a heroic and shocking image rooted in the real world. Perhaps because of the graphic nature of the enormous painting it was rejected by the selection committee for the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876 and was eventually displayed among army medical exhibits on the fairgrounds. Squeamish critics were generally harsh in their assessments, suggesting that Eakins’s contemporaries wanted reality in their art, but only of the genteel kind. Today, this is considered by many to be the greatest painting in American art history.
Another showstopper is an even larger surgeon-at-work canvas, “The Agnew Clinic” (1889). In this 841/8 by 118 inch picture, Eakins appears again at the far right, this time his portrait painted by his talented wife Susan.
Eakins’s use of photography as a tool in developing paintings is documented in a number of works in the show, particularly images of shad fishermen active near Gloucester, N.J., across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Using a newly-acquired camera in 1881, he took some 70 photographs, several of which are on view, in preparation for such oil paintings as “Shad Fishermen at Gloucester on the Delaware River” (1881) and “Mending the Net” (1881). Commenting on the former, Simpson notes, “By combining and editing his photographs through traced projections on the canvas, and with continued reference to photographic prints for interior forms, he was able to paint the finished painting back in his Philadelphia studio.”
Other works underscore the extent to which Eakins used the camera in teaching students and as an integral element in creating paintings. In many ways, he was ahead of most of his contemporaries in recognizing the value of photography in making fine art.
“Arcadia” (circa 1883), a rather strange pastoral scene, is based on nude photographs of his then-fiancée Susan Macdowell, who appears on the left, and John Laurie Wallace, who modeled for the standing piper on the right.
Eakins’s grand “Swimming” (1884-85) shows six nude men lounging on rocks, diving into the water and swimming in a lake. Eakins paddles into the picture from the right, accompanied by his dog Harry. This complex composition, now the proud possession of Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum, was preceded by numerous photographs and drawings of young men who were the artist’s students and friends.
In 1876 Eakins had begun teaching at Pennsylvania Academy, the nation’s most prestigious art school, where he had previously studied. He reformed the curriculum in line with his experiences at Ecole des Beaux Arts, evolving a course of study that combined principles of French Academic painting with what he perceived were the needs of modern American artists. Eakins’s classes, for both men and women, concentrated on sketching nude models, as well as instruction in anatomy and dissection.
Eakins liked to teach with “a skeleton, a stiff and a model,” one student recalled. The artist also encouraged pupils to use photography as an aid in depicting anatomy and motion and in composing pictures.
Eakins left the academy in 1886 in the midst of the uproar that followed his removal of a male model’s loincloth, considered an unforgivable act in the presence of female students. In the aftermath of the scandal, he turned inward, emphasizing portraiture for the remainder of his career.
Although his approach to creating art was intellectual and structured, Eakins’s personal feelings and passion come through in his deeply insightful likenesses. Whether depicting himself, his family, or people he hardly knew, he managed to penetrate to the core of the personality. “His gift,” scholar James Thomas Flexner wrote, “was to catch people at the moment when they lapsed into themselves.”
At a time when American portraiture had become an exercise in social flattery – think Sargent and Whistler – Eakins refused to idealize. The honesty, intensity and directness of his likenesses unnerved most people and scared off potential patrons.
In the end, portraits constitute Eakins’s most impressive and lasting work. The best group of likenesses ever created by an American painter, they are high points of the exhibition.
When he lacked commissions, Eakins turned to people around him or to kindred souls in the community or to figures whose achievements he admired. Preliminary drawings and photographs document his usual conscientious approach to each project, as well as the extent to which his personal observations and profound empathy for most sitters infused the final canvas. He painted not what he saw, but what he knew. “I believe my life is all in my work,” he wrote.
Two especially unforgettable portraits are those of his wife, Susan Macdowell Eakins, who had been a star pupil before their marriage in 1884. She was a skilled painter, but did little work during their union, as she concentrated on providing a tranquil domestic life for her husband and on defending him against all manner of criticisms, even after his death. There is no telling how much she might have achieved had she devoted herself to a career as an artist.
“The Artist’s Wife and His Setter Dog” (1884-89), begun the year they were married, shows his slim, winsome wife slumped in a chair in their first home, holding a Japanese picture book, with their dog snoozing at her feet. Her rather resigned posture and red-rimmed eyes suggest she already had forebodings about the trials and tribulations that lay ahead for her husband – and for herself.
“Portrait of Susan Macdowell Eakins (Mrs Thomas Eakins)” (circa 1899), painted some years later, offers a searing close-up of the painter’s long-suffering mate, who stood by him through thick and thin. It is a haunting likeness.
On the other hand, “William H. Macdowell” (1904) captures the rugged intensity of Susan’s father, to whom Eakins was very close. It is in the collection of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester.
Another compelling image is Eakins’s “Portrait of Henry Ossawa Tanner” (circa 1897), which conveys the deeply introspective nature of the African American painter who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy and pursued a highly successful career in France. This masterwork is owned by The Hyde Collection Art Museum in Glens Falls, N.Y.
Some of Eakins’s most interesting likenesses depict subjects in their professional environments. “Portrait of Professor Henry A. Rowland” (1897) shows the eminent physicist in his Johns Hopkins University laboratory holding one of his diffracting gratings reflecting the spectrum, with his assistant working in the background. The wooden frame, carved by the artist with coefficients and mathematical formulae, memorializes the scientist’s work.
“Singing a Pathetic Song” (1881), depicting a parlor concert with Susan Eakins playing the piano, reflects the couple’s interest in music. “The Concert Singer” (1890-92) and “The Cello Player” (1896) recall the painter’s respect for musicians, as well.
There are two highly evocative portraits of Mary Adeline Williams, a longtime family friend. Typically unsparing is the 1899 version, showing the plain, careworn face of a worried woman. More upbeat is the second portrait, painted around 1900, after “Addie” had come to live with Eakins and his wife. It portrays Williams “more relaxed and more tender,” as Susan Eakins put it, befitting her becoming “a beloved companion in our house.”
Even more memorable is “Portrait of Amelia C. Van Buren” (circa 1891), from the Phillipe Collection. Set against a stark background, the handsome young woman slumps, lost in thought, seemingly trapped and very vulnerable. Although the sitter was a favorite student and friend, Eakins felt obliged to expose the despair and weariness lying beneath her exterior charms. “This,” critic John Canaday once declared, “may be the finest of American portraits.”
If so, it has lots of competition from the hauntingly perceptive likeness of Walt Whitman (1887-88). This is one case where Eakins may have let his affection for his aging subject – they had become fast friends during posing sessions – influence the finished work. Whereas preparatory sketches and photographs show the elderly, bearded poet pale and dozing, the final canvas depicts a ruddy, energetic, good-natured figure.
Whitman did not approve of the likeness at first, but came to admire its deep insight. “The Eakins portrait … sets me down in correct style without feathers,” he concluded. “Tom’s portraits, which the formalists, the academic people won’t have at any price … are not a remaking of life but life … just as it is… [The] people who like Eakins best are the people who have no art prejudice to interpose.”
The controversies that surrounded Eakins’s career and the hostility that greeted some of his work took their toll on the determined artist. “My honors are misunderstanding, persecution and neglect, enhanced because unsought,” he wrote in an 1894 letter.
Eakins’s outsider status in conventional art circles and his tenuous standing with fellow artists is evidenced by the fact that for all his eminence he was not invited to become a member of the National Academy of Design until 1902, when he was 58. He fulfilled the academy’s requirement by executing a 30- by 25-inch self-portrait that conveys a palpable sense of the sadness and pain that afflicted so much of his career.
His gaze, clear and analytical, is that of an artist who was part scientist, while the firm mouth belongs to a man seemingly incapable of either compromise or despair. It is the image of a saddened man, in the twilight of his career, aware of rejection, but unbowed by it.
Thanks to curator Sewell’s longstanding Eakins expertise, this splendid retrospective does justice to the man and his art. It offers a consistently penetrating and intriguing pictorial record of the American people toward the end of the Nineteenth Century. In so doing, it demonstrates the manner in which Eakins adhered to is own admonition to “peer deeply into the heart of American life.”
In the final analysis, the exhibition constitutes a tribute to an artist whose greatness stems from his absolute refusal to compromise and lessen the power of his work. There is no denying, as Sewell puts it, that “Thomas Eakins remains one of the most fascinating creative personalities in American art.”
By dint of diligent effort, adherence to principle and obdurate genius, Eakins produced some of the finest art in our history. Rejected, maligned and frustrated in his day, he has been vindicated by the passage of time. Nearly a century later, appreciation for his monumental achievements places him at the front rank of our greatest painters.
The catalog accompanying the retrospective, bearing the same title, is exceptionally handsome and well done. Edited by Sewell, the 446-page book contains essays by scholars and conservators who place Eakins’s art in the context of his times and his city and examine his use of photography in his creative process. Contributors include Kathleen A. Foster, Nica Gutman, William Innes Homer, Elizabeth Milroy, W. Douglass Paschall, Marc Simpson, Carol Troyen, Mark Tucker, H. Barbara Weinberg and Amy B. Werbel. There is a helpfully detailed and illustrated chronology by Kathleen Brown.
Thomas Eakins is lavishly illustrated, with some 250 reproductions of works by Eakins and more than 300 vintage photographs and other images. Published in soft cover ($39.95) by the Philadelphia Museum and in hardcover ($65) by the Museum and Yale University Press, this volume will be a priceless addition to the bookshelves of experts and laymen alike.
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