Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview

11
Thomas Eakins and "Pure Art" Education

ELIZABETH JOHNS

Among the many controversial aspects of Thomas Eakins's career, none is more romanticized than his legendary status as the uncompromising art teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy who lost his job because he refused to modify his instructional practices. As noted Eakins scholar Elizabeth Johns explains, the common presumption--that a series of discrete and identifiable incidents involving the use of nude models in the classroom led to his dismissal--is an oversimplification of a complex situation. Drawing on Eakins's correspondence and on the archival records of the Academy, Johns locates the substance of the artist's disputes with the Academy administration in a matrix of pedagogical and curricular views emergent from Eakins's own experience as an art student.

Eakins designed a rigorous curriculum in which students could still have maximum autonomy to develop on their own. His advocacy of "pure art education," including instruction from the nude figure for all art students, regardless of their personal interests, was deemed impractical in a school that sought to accommodate a diverse population with varying professional aspirations. In addition, his manifest reluctance to engage in direct instruction was understood not as respect for student autonomy (a condition he valued highly in his own education) but rather as indifference and neglect.

What is best known about Thomas Eakins as a teacher of artists is that he was fired. That was a stunning conclusion to his career at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Although several historians have enumerated in detail Eakins's procedures and problems during his years as a teacher at the Academy, 1 I will take a more general and interpretive point of view in this essay, assessing Eakins's teaching by discussing three questions: What aspects of it upset the Academy authorities so drastically that they fired him? On what examples did Eakins model his teaching? And in what intellectual context might we best understand Eakins's convictions about teaching--and about learning?

Eakins ( 1844-1916) was on the faculty of the Academy in Philadelphia for ten years: from 1876 to 1879, when he taught as an assistant; from 1879 to 1882 when he taught as Professor of Drawing and Painting; and from 1882 to 1886, when he was Director of the Schools.

When the Board of Trustees demanded Eakins's resignation only four years into his tenure as director, explanations for the rupture focused on his use of the nude model: some said that he was fired because he insisted on using male and female models together, others that he used students as nude models for the life class of the opposite sex, still others that he lifted a loin cloth from a male model in a female life class. Although subsequent historians have endorsed these explanations, a look at the larger picture indicates that no such isolated actions by Eakins

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