The Realism of Thomas Eakins

By Lewis, Michael J. | New Criterion, December 2001 | Go to article overview

The Realism of Thomas Eakins


Lewis, Michael J., New Criterion


I would have them taught facts and things, rather than words and signs.

-- Stephen Girard, 1831.

My honors are misunderstanding, persecution & neglect, enhanced because unsought.

--Thomas Eakins, 1894

At first blush, the realism of Thomas Eakins seems an unpromising method for probing psychology. His method was an empiricism of almost clinical ruthlessness, grounded in anatomical study, dissection, and the photographic investigation of posture and movement. He did not banter charmingly with his sitters in order to coax lively expressions from them, as Sargent did, preferring to work in silence and look for those truths that cannot be pried out by conversation. It is difficult to imagine an artistic method more likely to drain a painting of all content beyond the purely physical and mechanical. And yet Eakins, surely America's most prosaic painter of facts and appearances, is also our most deeply psychological.

Eakins's work falls into two categories. On the one hand, there are his portraits, which feature the pensive and introspective poses that showed his solid, nearly sculptural modeling to best advantage. On the other hand, there are the genre paintings, which are more than mere scenes of everyday life: they depict particularly intense physical effort or mental concentration (or both). In a sense, these too are portraits, invariably built around strong character studies, and it might be more fitting to divide Eakins's work into portraits of thought and portraits of action. At any rate, the human form--solid, corporeal, elastic--is at the center of Eakins's art.

Eakins is a rather difficult artist to classify, and it does not settle the matter to call him a realist. (To quote Horatio: "There needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this.") The problem is rather to specify Eakins's peculiar species of realism. It is not, for example, that of Manet or Daumier --that of horrific events, or social classes and institutions. Nor is it the realism of the Ashcan School, that of gritty urban life. Nor, certainly, is it the realism of contemporary American literature--of Theodore Dreiser, for instance--of the tawdry daily struggle. Although sometimes called scientific realism, due to Eakins's extensive use of the camera and the scalpel, it might more justifiably be labeled academic realism, because of its conviction that the rendering of the human body--that most academic of subjects--is the richest and most noble instrument of artistic expression.

Thomas Eakins was born in Philadelphia in 1844 to a "writing master," a calligrapher who lettered certificates and diplomas, and who taught penmanship. Except for his years of study, his entire career would unfold in the prim Quaker city. He attended the exclusive Central High School, where he took a rigorous program of mechanical drawing and showed an early gift for the convincing rendering of geometric solids in space. Upon graduation he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, America's oldest art academy, where he studied from 1862 to 1866, having paid a bounty to avoid the Civil War draft.

The curriculum of the Academy was conventional: first drawing from antique casts and then promotion to the life drawing class, supplemented by lectures on anatomy. There was no formal faculty, and criticism was given by two history painters of the older Dusseldorf tradition--a tradition featuring punctilious draftsmanship and theatrical composition. Eakins evidently wanted more, for he took the unusual step of enrolling in an anatomy course for medical students at the nearby Jefferson Medical College, where he became fascinated by dissection. Having exhausted the opportunities for studying art in Philadelphia, he sailed for France in 1866 to study at the Ecole des Beaux Art.

In Paris he joined the atelier of the dashing Jean-Leon Gerome, France's popular painter of Orientalist themes. Here he remained for three years, becoming one of the star pupils.

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