Projecting an Image: The Contested Cultural Identity of Thomas Eakins

By Lubin, David | The Art Bulletin, September 2002 | Go to article overview
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Projecting an Image: The Contested Cultural Identity of Thomas Eakins

Lubin, David, The Art Bulletin

Thomas Eakins: American Realist Philadelphia Museum of Art, October 4, 2001 January 6, 2002

Darrel Sewell et al. Thomas Eakins, exh. cat. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2001. 487 pp., 289 color ills., 223 b/w. $65.00

The 19th-century realist Thomas Eakins frequently made use of photographs in preparing his finished oil paintings. This has never been a secret, nor a source of controversy.

What has not been known until now is that he actually projected the images onto canvas and traced from them, incising tick marks in the canvas to guide his brush and then camouflaging these incisions in order to hide what would have seemed to his contemporaries a nonartistic reliance on picture-making technology. This was the headline news of Thomas Eakins: American Realist, the magnificent comprehensive exhibition of work by Eakins that originated at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the fall of 2001 and went on to the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The painter's tracing of photographs was indeed news, though hardly attention-grabbing. Even before this latest revelation, Eakins was one of America's most controversial artists. You wouldn't have known it, however, from walking through this exhibition, which downplayed the "human-interest" side of its subject. Darrel Sewell, the museum's Robert L. McNeil Jr. Curator of American Art and a leading authority on Eakins, organized the exhibition in such a way as to steer clear of personal biography. The copious commentary provided by the show in the form of wall texts, introductory video, and punch-in-thenumbers audio guide concentrated mostly on technical matters of artistic process, with only an occasional nod toward biographical milestones.

Such principled discretion had the effect of converting Eakins into a bloodless, sexless creative artist who cerebrally posed various difficult technical challenges to himself and then methodically and mechanically set about solving them. All the fuss made in the introductory video, the wall texts, and the museum's press materials about the great realist's previously unsuspected reliance on photographic tracing for achieving mimesis only reinforced the exhibition's depersonalization of Eakins. The authentic scandals of sex and social realism that broke during his lifetime and posthumously made him an American icon were displaced into a much milder and more narrowly circumscribed "scandal" about his unorthodox photographic procedure.

What do these paintings have to say about the world in which the artist lived? Why did he make them? What do they reveal about him? What can they tell us about ourselves?

These are the questions-the "big" questions, to use the artist's favorite modifier when talking about the art he admired-that Thomas Eakins: American Realist was perhaps too discreet to confront. I wouldn't go so far as to say the show avoided or evaded such questions, only that it turned its gaze away from them and, in so doing, missed a select opportunity to connect the general public with one of the most serious, influential, and intellectually engaging artists the United States has produced.

Big painters, to borrow Eakins's terminology again, have big problems. That is, they set remarkably high standards for themselves and pose difficult challenges. But it would be a mistake to assume that these challenges are limited to technical matters such as, in Eakins's case, how to depict accurately the legs of trotting horses or the cant of a boat under sail. Eakins's problems lay in the personal and professional as well as representational realms, some of them relatively modern (how to make a living by one's mind rather than one's back; how to enjoy leisure; how to adopt a scientific ethos), others ageold (how to supersede one's parents; how to endure agonies of the flesh; how to face the encroachments of mortality). What proved most fascinating with regard to the exhibition was not its revelation about Eakins's tracing technique but rather the "big" picture it provided of a four-decade-long career repeatedly and often tensely balanced between the artist's unabashedly conservative fealty to the past (be it that of ancient Greek sculpture, Spanish Baroque painting, or the French academic realism of his student years) and his progressive loyalty to the present (as evidenced by his dogged insistence on portraying modern sports, science, and medicine in what seemed at the time a particularly cool, objective, and unsentimental manner).

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