Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview

attendance of students at dissections so that they would see first hand the order of the physical universe and the correlation between what is seen and what is unseen. In Benjamin Eakins's capacity as a writer and teacher of script (a profession in which Thomas joined him during his first few years after high school), he himself subscribed to the faith in the ordering function of knowledge gained through experience. Writers of script saw their vocation as built on intellectual clarity: one could not draw or write correctly unless one first observed carefully and then ordered those observations. And finally, Eakins was guided by these convictions in his direction of his own study to be a portrait painter, a goal he declared quite early during his study in Paris. He assigned to himself the mastery of anatomy, of dissection, of sculpture as a study for painting, of perspective, of still life, all in addition to earnest investigation of a wide range of painting techniques. Knowledge was to be the foundation for painting even the simplest bust portrait.

Eakins's commitment to knowledge rings again and again in the memories of his students. A contemporary wrote of the Academy under his direction that its objective was to impart knowledge, not inspiration. 10"Strain your brain more than your eye," Eakins was reported to have urged his students; 11 and he commented on his own painting that it had not become good until he finally knew enough to paint from memory rather than observation.

Thus Eakins's insistence at the Academy on a pure art education, one that taught the students to look carefully at the real world, to know thoroughly what they saw, and to order it appropriately, grew from his education as a general citizen, from the ideals of his father's profession (for a while his own), and from his own extraordinarily disciplined study of art.

Although to his directors at the Academy Eakins's ideals were impractical, inefficient, and even threatening in their severity (an assessment most of us wrestle with in our own careers as educators), Eakins had no doubts. That an artist should receive a "pure" art education as a foundation for whatever he might do later with brush or pencil was to him a simple given.


NOTES

From Archives of American Art, vol. 23, no. 3 ( 1983). Reprinted by permission of the author.

This essay is adapted from a talk at the "Symposium on the Education of Artists in the United States" held at Mount Holyoke College, April 9, 1983. As the following footnotes indicate, material in the Archives of American Art assists the study of many dimensions of Eakins's career, including his teaching.

1.
The most recent published secondary source for information on Eakins's years as a teacher is Lloyd Goodrich , Thomas Eakins, 2 vols. ( Cambridge: Harvard University Press for the National Gallery of Art, 1982). Especially pertinent are vol. I, pp. 167-189 and 279-309, and accompanying notes. Two articles written during Eakins's lifetime are William C. Brownell, "The Art Schools of Philadelphia," Scribner's Monthly Illustrated Magazine 18 ( September 1879): 737-750; and Fairman Rogers, "The Art Schools of Philadelphia," The Penn Monthly 12 ( June 1881): 453-462. Reminiscences of an Eakins student are recorded by Charles Bregler, in "Thomas Eakins as a Teacher," The Arts 17 ( March 1931): 378-386; and "Thomas Eakins as a Teacher: Second Article," The Arts 18 ( October 1931): 18-42. Recent interpretive essays include Louise Lippincott, "Thomas Eakins and the Academy," In This Academy: The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1805-1976 ( Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1976); and Ronald J. Onorato, "Photography and Teaching: Eakins at the Academy," American Art Review 3 ( July-August 1976): 127-140, and "The Context ofthe Pennsylvania Academy: Thomas Eakins' Assistantship to Christian Schuessele,"

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