Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist

Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist

Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist

Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist


Thomas Eakins is widely considered one of the great American painters, an artist whose uncompromising realism helped move American art from the Victorian era into the modern age. He is also acclaimed as a paragon of integrity, one who stood up for his artistic beliefs even when they brought him personal and professional difficulty--as when he was fired from the Pennsylvania Academy of Art for removing a model's loincloth in a drawing class.
Yet beneath the surface of Eakins's pictures is a sense of brooding unease and latent violence--a discomfort voiced by one of his sitters who said his portrait "decapitated" her. InEakins Revealed, art historian Henry Adams examines the dark side of Eakins's life and work, in a startling new biography that will change our understanding of this American icon. Based on close study of Eakins's work and new research in the Bregler papers, a major collection never fully mined by scholars, this volume shows Eakins was not merely uncompromising, but harsh and brutal both in his personal life and in his painting. Adams uncovers the bitter personal feuds and family tragedies surrounding Eakins--his mother died insane and his niece committed suicide amid allegations that Eakins had seduced her--and documents the artist's tendency toward psychological abuse and sexual harassment of those around him.
This provocative book not only unveils new facts about Eakins's life; more important, it makes sense, for the first time, of the enigmas of his work. Eakins Revealedpromises to be a controversial biography that will attract readers inside and outside the art world, and fascinate anyone concerned with the mystery of artistic genius.


This study began as a popular article and evolved into a serious piece of research. For many years I felt dissatisfied by what has been written on Thomas Eakins, but could not quite pinpoint the reason. The accounts of this artist's life have always contained an element of optimistic boosterism, and something about this, and about the way he was portrayed as a heroic and moral figure, did not quite jibe with the troubled mood that I sensed in his paintings. While one can hardly fail to admire Eakins's technical skill and power of emotional expression, there is something in his work that has always struck me as brutal and unpleasant. I felt this even as a child when I first looked at reproductions of Eakins's work, but over the years I could never quite put my finger on what bothered me.

What finally inspired me to grapple with this question was the discovery in 1984 of the Bregler papers, a group of long-lost documents from Eakins's studio, and their purchase in 1985 by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The uncovering of hidden treasure always makes a good story; and I thought that I could write this discovery up in journalistic fashion for Smithsonian, a popular magazine aimed at a family audience.

Lying behind my effort was a certain sense of guilt. I had never responded to Eakins's work with the intense national pride and moralistic fervor that is expected of Americanists, and that serves as a kind of familial tie—a sort of badge of belonging, like a Masonic handshake—for those in the American art field. I thought that this project would enable me to remedy this fault. If I got to know Eakins better, so I thought, I would learn to empathize with him, and come to admire his artistic and moral framework.

As I began to read through the Bregler materials, however, I realized there . . .

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