Who Was Thomas Eakins?

By Erwin, Robert | The Antioch Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview
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Who Was Thomas Eakins?

Erwin, Robert, The Antioch Review

"Posterity is as likely to be wrong as anybody else."

--Heywood Broun

Thomas Eakins, the nineteenth-century painter from Philadelphia, was one of the founders of what we now call American Realism. Shunning neo-classicism, beaux-arts curlicues, and (up to a point) Victorian mawkishness, be depicted naturalistic scenes of boating, swimming, hunting, surgeons operating, scientists with their apparatus, musicians performing, boxers in the ring. He used trigonometry, reference points, and arcs on preparatory grids to ensure accurate perspective. He pioneered in the use of photography as both a source of images and an aid to observation. His portraits are frequently praised for getting at character. Eakins (1844-1916) is a good artist to turn to when you are temporarily tired of picture-postcard aspects of the Hudson River School and the way American Impressionists rode the coattails of the French.

That is part of the story, and yet a funny thing happened on the way to the twenty-first century. The Eakins we appreciate today is a creation of posterity. His pictures hang in prestigious museums, fetch big bucks, and get reproduced in art books. But it was fifteen or twenty years after his death before many curators, critics, and collectors took notice, thirty to forty years till a broad art public began to credit him with showing the "real America" of his day. Few of his works were exhibited or sold during his lifetime. Most of his contemporaries judged the ones they saw vile, and his personal reputation was very low. Hardly anybody paid attention to favorable opinions of his work expressed in passing by Sargent, St. Gaudens, and Robert Henri.

This raises two questions. Why did contemporaries overlook or dismiss his achievements? Why do later generations admire him?

It all started innocuously. Graduating high in his class from Philadelphia's elite Central High School with the equivalent of a B.A. degree today, Eakins received top marks in drawing. Subsequently at Jefferson Medical College he acquired a knowledge of anatomy probably as thorough as that of the average physician of the time. Moving on to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts but finding its curriculum dull, he sailed to France, talked his way into the Academie des Beaux-Arts, and studied under Jean Leon Gerome, evidently pleasing the master. Eakins continued to excel in mathematics and languages as well as anatomy. As a mature man, for relaxation at the end of a day of painting he sometimes solved calculus problems and diagrammed Latin sentences on a blackboard set up in the dining room. While finishing 110 portraits between the ages of 56 and 61, most of them initiated by him for no pay, he insisted that the subjects return repeatedly to his ill-ventilated studio for more sittings. When one lady, finding this unbearably tedious, offered to send a maid in her place, Eakins delivered a mock apology "for trespassing on your complacency."

Lack of prettiness and decorum were what disgusted his contemporaries. He refused to paint the sort of scene most of them liked if they looked at art at all--say a sweet young thing in a vaguely classical gown, drinking from a fairyland fountain while a butterfly hovers overhead. Initially he seemed to think that by offering a superior vision he would lift them out of philistinism. Thus he worked up a major painting, rich in light and shadow, of surgeons in action before an arena of medical students. He expected The Gross Clinic to attract national attention at the upcoming Centennial Exposition of 1876, and, uncharacteristically for him, he even buttered up a member of the art selection committee in advance. Upon seeing the picture, however, the committee loathed its "gore" and clinical nudity and refused to hang it in the art hall. Instead they put it in a mock army field hospital, a minor exhibit, foreshadowing rejections that dogged Eakins for the rest of his life. When Eakins subsequently turned his hand to The Crucifixion, he assumed his expert knowledge of anatomy equipped him to contribute something new to a traditional and impeccably orthodox subject.

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