Realist Painter Eakins Was Controversial, Innovative

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He was one of America's great realist painters, but he was also stubborn, radical, and nonconformist. He believed that the au naturel human body was the root of all art, and lost a teaching job because of it.

Uncompromising and controversial, Philadelphia's native son Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) was also a groundbreaking artist. The Philadelphia Museum of Art's new retrospective, "Thomas Eakins: American Realist," both confirms and exults in that fact.

The exhibit, which opened earlier this month as the centerpiece of this museum's 125th-anniversary celebration, is the first retrospective of Eakins' work since the same curator, Darrel Sewell, completed one here 19 years ago.

Eakins brought training in Paris, mathematical precision, and frequently the then-new art of photography to his now-classic renderings of scullers, sailors, landscapes, and portrait subjects - and sometimes took heat for it.

He was booted from his post at the prestigious, but prudish, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts after undraping a male nude model before a coed class, as well as for his scandalous nude photos.

"Eakins's making of art was, in a sense, a constant exploration of subjects," Mr. Sewell explained during a preview of the exhibition, which displays many of Eakins's recently discovered photographs - and some sketches and paintings - for the first time (or for the first time in decades, as is the case with the majestic "Cowboys in the Bad Lands").

Eakins is perhaps most famous for his paintings of Schuylkill River scullers John and Bernard Biglin, and for scenes of racing on the Delaware River. The exhibition includes his perspective drawings for "The Pair Oared Shell," made so he could calculate the rowers' reflections on the water. (Eakins later wrote, "There is so much beauty in the reflections that it is generally well worth while to try to get them right.")

He made painstaking academic studies for many of his pieces, often going from sketches and preliminary paintings to sculptures. One of his most elaborate projects was "William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River"; the exhibition contains every stage of its evolution, including the statue Rush created as Eakins painted him. …