Eakins and Icons

Article excerpt

Thomas Eakins first came to public attention in the mid1870s as a painter of water-sport subjects. In these early oils and watercolors, bird hunters quietly pole their boats through marshes or set out from shore under sail, and oarsmen slice through the reflective waters of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River. One of the earliest critical notices of these works, written by Eakins's friend and fellow painter Earl Shinn, appeared in the magazine Nation in 1874. Shinn introduced Eakins to a national readership in this way: "Some remarkably original and studious boating scenes were shown by Thomas Eakins, a new exhibitor, of whom we learn that he is a realist, an anatomist and mathematician; that his perspectives, even of waves and ripples, are protracted according to strict science. . . .",,Well over a century later, Eakins is still a painter for whom these lessons remain fundamental. His art historical significance is rooted in his identity as a studious realist whose painting draws its force from extensive scientific research into anatomy, perspective, reflection, and motion. He is credited with reinventing (or destroying) academic realism by filling its shell with scientific knowledge.2 By combining close attention to visual appearances with systematic knowledge of structures, functions, and spatial relations, he generated likenesses of extraordinary intensity. In short, Eakins intensified his painted icons by merging seeing with knowing. (I am using icon as defined by Charles Sanders Peirce to designate a sign that evokes its object through resemblance. ) This interpretation of Eakins's work remains quite resilient despite efforts by some scholars to advance alternative understandings of his "realism."

Eakins himself seems to have formulated his artistic objectives in these very terms. We know his devotion to the study of anatomy and perspective bordered on the fanatic from the evidence of his biography and the vast number of elaborate preparatory diagrams that cluttered his studio. Moreover, the demanding curriculum Eakins developed for students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts featured these same emphases, so much so that a reporter for Scribner's magazine writing an article on the school in 1879 was astonished by the exhaustiveness and apparent irrelevance of much of the instruction. Hearing of the grueling routine of dissection and anatomical study at the school, the reporter posed the obvious question: "[M]ust a painter know all this?" To which Eakins replied: To draw the human figure it is necessary to know as much as possible about it, about its structure and its movements, its bones and muscles, how they are made, and how they act .... Knowing all that will enable [an artist] to observe more closely, and the closer his observation is, the better his drawing will be.4

Knowledge enables close observation, and close observation brings knowledge. Eakins here articulates a belief in the harmonious reciprocity of seeing and knowing that is fundamental to his art. He was no Romantic dreaming of an innocent eye-in fact, quite the opposite. His fantasy of vision featured an omniscient eye. Truthful seeing demanded full and systematic knowledge of the laws of nature and of art. Hearing Eakins make this argument, the reporter for Scribner's remained skeptical, worrying that too much knowledge was dangerous for art, that it "distorted genuine impulses." He wondered whether Eakins "would insist upon a landscape painter taking an elaborate course of botany," but apparently he did not pose this question in the interview.5

Several interpreters of Eakins's work-including such insightful and influential scholars as Lloyd Goodrich, Barbara Novak, Elizabeth Johns, and Kathleen Foster-have analyzed it in terms of an interaction between seeing and knowing. Although their approaches have differed considerably, most have mapped this interaction directly onto another: the interplay between graphic and painterly elements in Eakins's art. …