Magazine article History Today

Philadelphia's Unknown Master

Magazine article History Today

Philadelphia's Unknown Master

Article excerpt

* Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) is considered by many American scholars as their foremost painter, yet he is little known outside the US. In Europe, his work is currently represented by a single picture in Paris' Musee D'Orsay. To rectify this, the National Portrait Gallery in London are holding an exhibition of Eakins' work, opening this month and lasting until January 1994.

Not only was Eakins a great artist, he was also an interesting historical figure. He studied anatomy at Jefferson Medical College and art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Frustrated at the limitations of American art teaching, he went to Europe in 1866, returning on July 4th, 1870. However, he was selective in what he brought back. He seems not to have noticed the Impressionists and rejected Rubens as |dashy and flashy'. On the other hand, he was bowled over by the |bigness' of Velasquez and Ribera. He was also given the chance to draw extensively from the nude and to develop a painterly technique as a result of these experiences which he could not get at home.

Quite against the European grain, Eakins became a committed realist. For him, the most artistic thing he could do was to represent what he saw accurately. His knowledge of anatomy stood him in excellent stead and he became a pioneer of photography, using it as a tool to aid his painting and as a means of expression in itself. Over five hundred of his photographs have survived and he was photographed by other people at least seventy-five times. Almost all of his portraits were preceded by photographic studies. His meticulousness can be seen in his |Naked Series', where a nude model was photographed in a series of seven progressive stances. Capturing the human frame in the act of movement was always one of his aims.

Eakins became a specialist in portraiture in the widest sense, often placing people in context, as in his picture of The Spinner (illustrated on page 62), as well as in more conventional poses. The reality of the spinner's bones and muscles are evident through her clothing, a characteristic of all Eakins' pictures. He had a great and typically American admiration for work. When he painted people at rest, they nearly always have an absorbed expression on their faces and rarely face the artist. It is perhaps not surprising that one of his greatest portraits is of Walt Whitman - a man who made his living from his thoughts. …

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