Hilton, Tim, The Independent (London, England)
THOMAS EAKINS is an artist to treasure and I strongly recommend a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, where there's a selection of the portraits and subject pictures he made in his native Philadelphia in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first years of this one.
He's not well known in Britain, though he does have a reputation. He exemplifies the American traditions of democratic patriotism and respect for individual achievement. And, obviously enough, he has a place in the generation of realist portrait painters before the dominance of modernism. But what we didn't realise is, simply, how good he is - how candid, virtuous and strong.
One tends to use these terms of moral approbation in front of an Eakins canvas (personally, he was not a saint) because his quality is hard to define. The paintings seem utterly straightforward. Here are local dignitaries, members of the artist's family, people driving in the park, rowing or shooting wild duck. It's as though the painter's function was to be simply descriptive. You think for a moment that the artist has nothing to add, that his personality is content with the ordinariness of visible things. But stay a little while with the pictures and you find that they were made with passion.
I found that a long look at all the pictures was necessary before feeling the individual pulse of each one. Reactions to the paintings may be tested with reference to the only picture in the show that doesn't work. It's the portrait of Dr Horatio C Wood. He was a natural subject for Eakins: a friend, a doctor, an independent spirit and something of a backwoodsman. And the picture in its mundane essentials is what Eakins so often painted: a mature man sitting at his desk and looking confidently at the artist. Yet somehow the painting doesn't satisfy. The pulse fails to appear.
I guess that Eakins's failures were few. Certainly, the achievement of the paintings at the NPG is set and maintained at a high level. You realise that painting for Eakins involved a sturdy effort of will. But the effect is more of concentration than of struggle. Eakins's realism meant that he did not search for new ways to express himself. Experiment was not in his nature. But the emotion was there.
Eakins often looked for bluntness and solidity, as in the Sailboats Racing on the Delaware, which is simultaneously as fresh as the breezy weather it depicts. Or he could vary brushwork within one picture. Much of the power of Professor Benjamin Howard Rand comes from the ability to imitate the sheen on …
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Publication information: Article title: Art Exhibitions. Contributors: Hilton, Tim - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: October 17, 1993. Page number: Not available. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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