Thomas Eakins, Shunned Innovator

By Bell, Judith | The World and I, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Thomas Eakins, Shunned Innovator


Bell, Judith, The World and I


Though marginalized by prudish conventions, Eakins stood by his frank depictions of human beings and their inner worlds. A new exhibit occasions a fresh look at his work and methods.

Whether capturing the specifics of time and weather in rowing, sailing, and fishing scenes or recording the complexities of character and psychological truth in portraiture, Thomas Eakins (1844--1916) faithfully rendered the "life and types" of nineteenth-century America. His direct and probing paintings--inspired by science, machines, mathematics, and the beauty of the human form--depict an entirely different world from that inhabited by such American contemporaries as John La Farge and Childe Hassam.

Now, for the first time in nearly twenty years, more than sixty-five of the artist's greatest oils, together with examples of watercolors, drawings, sculpture, and photographs--over two hundred works in all-- have been gathered from public and private collections nationwide to be featured in the touring retrospective Thomas Eakins. Organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it opens in the artist's home city on October 4, then travels to the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Photography as a Tool

Just a few years after the 1982 exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Eakins was revealed to be one of the first American artists to make photography a central component of his painting process. The discovery of the Bregler collection--sixteen hundred items preserved by Charles Bregler, one of Eakins' loyal students--presented a unique opportunity to look at Eakins' method. According to art historian Kathleen Stanley, who along with Cheryl Leibold acquired the collection for the Pennsylvania Academy, the huge trove consisted of "the material that wives of artists and artists' children throw out."

For five years after he acquired his first camera in 1880, Eakins explored the potential of the device, beginning with photographs of his family and self-portraits. Knowledge of the exact role that photography played in his work was previously limited. Both Eakins and his widow, Susan, were obviously fearful of public opinion about his use of photography, a practice not wholly accepted but one that became increasingly popular during the nineteenth century as photographic techniques were perfected. "Eakins only used a photograph when [it was] impossible to get information in the way he preferred, painting from the living, moving model," Susan Eakins said in 1930. "He disliked working from a photograph, and absolutely refused to do so in a portrait." The 600 prints and 225 glass-plate negatives found in shoe boxes at the bottom of Bregler's basement stairs included a number of previously unknown images as well as 75 photographs of Eakins. They provided a backdoor look at how the artist used photography in his work.

The artist's hunger for accuracy was well known. He made endless studies, being concerned with, for example, getting a chair to rest believably on the floor or a scull to slice through the water at an accurate angle. Sometimes he applied actual scale drawings directly to the canvas. It is obvious from the many prints and negatives found in the Bregler collection that Eakins' intense involvement with photography was driven by what the medium did for his painting.

This discovery prompted museum conservators Mark Tucker and Nica Gutman to look for technical evidence that he used photographs as a source of images in making paintings. With the help of infrared reflectography, a technique often employed for capturing images of subsurface features of paintings layer by layer, they examined the underdrawings of several of his paintings, including Pushing for Rail, Shad Fishing, and The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand.

What they found were drawings that differed from the draftsmanship seen in his independent drawings. Projections of related photographs from the Bregler collection onto these paintings further revealed that-- probably with the help of a loupe (a small magnifier used by jewelers and watchmakers) and a magic lantern (a common household toy of the time that sold for ten dollars)--the artist had made marks with a needlelike instrument before and during painting, reusing photographic sources as the painting progressed. …

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