American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience

By Barbara Novak | Go to book overview
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11.
Thomas Eakins

SCIENCE AND SIGHT

When Thomas Eakins ( 1844-1916) visited the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1867, he was more interested in the locomotives and machinery than in the art. 1 This curiosity about mechanism, with its concomitant respect for fact, led him into serious anatomical studies--like the Renaissance masters who dissected to use knowledge as an instrument of truth. With Eakins, this desire for knowledge--an almost obsessive one in his case-- extended to the use of the machine as tool (photography) and into mathematics. His art thus belongs, in many of its aspects, to the mensurational, machine-connected aesthetic that characterizes much American art before and after him. 2 In his grave attempts to reconcile knowledge with art, he was perhaps the most philosophical and conscientious of American artists.

Like Homer, Eakins continued to monumentalize the genre tradition of Mount. And Philadelphia became for him, as did Stony Brook for Mount, a locus for complicated perspective studies. Eakins was as aware as Mount and Homer of the challenges of plein-air observation, and he sometimes went up to the roof with rag models, using actual sunlight, as Homer did, to reconstruct scenes observed elsewhere. Occasionally, for boating pictures, Eakins advised that the student set the boat into place by simulating its position with a brick. 3 Thus, direct observation, secondary re-creation through the model, and mathematical (sometimes mechanical drawing) aids were all brought to bear on a single picture.

It is not surprising that at times his pictures lack easy resolutions and authoritative syntheses. Within the same painting, the mathematical and the visual could coexist without reconciliation. Yet the outcome often has an odd conviction, deriving precisely from this combined process, declaring a cousinship to similarly compounded works within the American tradition. This is especially obvious in the superb boating pictures of the early 1870's. Eakins' most famous statement recognizes the components of this process:

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