Published: July 31, 2001
The Critical Significance of Drawing in the Work of Thomas Eakins
PHILADELPHIA, PENN. – The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts will feature an exhibition of over 30 Thomas Eakins drawings and oil studies from the landmark Charles Bregler Collection October 6 to January 6. Long considered one of America’s most influential late Nineteenth Century artists, Eakins (1844-1916) is acclaimed for his skill as a figure painter and portraitist.
This special display, drawn entirely from the academy’s permanent holdings and organized to complement the Eakins retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, reveals the critical significance that drawing played in the artist’s creative process.
Eakins never executed a single drawing intended for public display or purchase, yet no medium was more central to his artistic practice. Almost every effort during the first few decades of his career began with studies in graphite, charcoal, or pen, that Eakins continued to draw at the end of his life, even when his mastery of painting was so profound that preparatory studies would have seemed unnecessary. This reliance on drawing can be traced to his early home life and artistic training in Philadelphia.
The native-born artist grew up surrounded by the decorative work of his father – a calligrapher and penmanship instructor – from whom he received drafting instruction at an early age. As a student at Central High School, Eakins studied penmanship and learned the techniques of mechanical and perspectival drawings.
From 1862 to 1866, he trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he drew from the academy’s plaster casts of classical sculptures and attended lectures on anatomy, before advancing to the life-drawing class.
Three years of additional study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, in Paris, lead Eakins to embrace oil as his primary medium, though drawing remained a constant in his working method. Through this early training, Eakins learned to master such compositional elements as tone, texture, and gesture as well as an acute understanding of the human body, which would become the primary focus of his work throughout his life.
As professor and then director of the academy’s school, from 1879 to 1886, Eakins established a rigorous program of study that led to the institution’s reputation for offering the most “radical” form of art instruction in the country.
Prior to the academy’s 1895 acquisition of the Bregler collection – formed by one of the most devoted of Eakins’ students – little was known of the centrality of drawing in the artist’s production. “” surveys this theme through rarely displayed examples of Eakins’ mechanical, anatomical, and compositional studies, including the so-called Spanish Sketchbook, dating from his European student years.
As the institution most closely associated with Eakins and one whose identity continues to be shaped by his legacy, the academy honors its illustrious former student and faculty member through an exhibition that underlines the critical methods and aims of his art.
“” was guest curator by the Eakins scholar Amy B. Werbel, associate professor of fine arts at Saint Michael’s College, Colchester, Vt. And co-organized by the Robert Hull Fleming Museum, Burlington, Vt., where it was seen last winter, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
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