Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Born Today In 1844, Painter, Photographer Thomas Eakins


Thomas Eakins was born today, July 25, in 1844.  He was an American realist painter, photographer, sculptor, and fine arts educator. He is widely acknowledged to be one of the most important artists in American art history.

For the length of his professional career, from the early 1870s until his health began to fail some 40 years later, Eakins worked exactingly from life, choosing as his subject the people of his hometown of Philadelphia. He painted several hundred portraits, usually of friends, family members, or prominent people in the arts, sciences, medicine, and clergy. Taken en masse, the portraits offer an overview of the intellectual life of Philadelphia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; individually, they are incisive depictions of thinking persons.

In addition, Eakins produced a number of large paintings which brought the portrait out of the drawing room and into the offices, streets, parks, rivers, arenas, and surgical amphitheaters of his city. These active outdoor venues allowed him to paint the subject which most inspired him: the nude or lightly clad figure in motion. In the process he could model the forms of the body in full sunlight, and create images of deep space utilizing his studies in perspective. Eakins also took a keen interest in the new technologies of motion photography, a field in which he is now seen as an innovator.

No less important in Eakins' life was his work as a teacher. As an instructor he was a highly influential presence in American art. The difficulties which beset him as an artist seeking to paint the portrait and figure realistically were paralleled and even amplified in his career as an educator, where behavioral and sexual scandals truncated his success and damaged his reputation.



Eakins was a controversial figure whose work received little by way of official recognition during his lifetime. Since his death, he has been celebrated by American art historians as "the strongest, most profound realist in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American art."

Eakins was born and lived most of his life in Philadelphia. Eakins grew up on a farm in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, the son of a weaver.  Eakins observed his father at work and by 12 demonstrated skill in precise line drawing, perspective, and the use of a grid to lay out a careful design, skills he later applied to his art.

He was an athletic child who enjoyed rowing, ice skating, swimming, wrestling, sailing, and gymnastics—activities he later painted and encouraged in his students. Eakins attended Central High School, the premier public school for applied science and arts in the city, where he excelled in mechanical drawing. Thomas met fellow artist and lifelong friend, Charles Lewis Fussell in high school and they reunited to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Eakins began at the academy in 1861 and later attended courses in anatomy and dissection at Jefferson Medical College from 1864 to 65. His scientific interest in the human body led him to consider becoming a surgeon.

Eakins then studied art in Europe from 1866 to 1870, notably in Paris with Jean-Léon Gérôme, being only the second American pupil of the French realist painter, famous as a master of Orientalism. He also attended the atelier of Léon Bonnat, a realist painter who emphasized anatomical preciseness, a method adapted by Eakins. While studying at the École des Beaux-Arts, he seems to have taken scant interest in the new Impressionist movement, nor was he impressed by what he perceived as the classical pretensions of the French Academy. A letter home to his father in 1868 made his aesthetic clear: She [the female nude] is the most beautiful thing there is in the world except a naked man, but I never yet saw a study of one exhibited... It would be a godsend to see a fine man model painted in the studio with the bare walls, alongside of the smiling smirking goddesses of waxy complexion amidst the delicious arsenic green trees and gentle wax flowers & purling streams running melodious up & down the hills especially up. I hate affectation.

Already at age 24, "nudity and verity were linked with an unusual closeness in his mind." Yet his desire for truthfulness was more expansive, and the letters home to Philadelphia reveal a passion for realism that included, but was not limited to, the study of the figure.

A trip to Spain for 6 months confirmed his admiration for the realism of artists such as Diego Velázquez and Jusepe de Ribera. In Seville in 1869 he painted Carmelita Requeña, a portrait of a 7-year-old gypsy dancer more freely and colorfully painted than his Paris studies. That same year he attempted his first large oil painting, A Street Scene in Seville, wherein he first dealt with the complications of a scene observed outside the studio. Although he failed to matriculate in a formal degree program and had showed no works in the European salons, Eakins succeeded in absorbing the techniques and methods of French and Spanish masters, and he began to formulate his artistic vision which he demonstrated in his first major painting upon his return to America.

Eakins' first works upon his return from Europe included a large group of rowing scenes, 11 oils and watercolors in all, of which the first and most famous is Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (1871; also known as The Champion Single Sculling). Both his subject and his technique drew attention. His selection of a contemporary sport was "a shock to the artistic conventionalities of the city." Eakins placed himself in the painting, in a scull behind Schmitt, his name inscribed on the boat.

At the same time that he made these initial ventures into outdoor themes, Eakins produced a series of domestic Victorian interiors, often with his father, his sisters or friends as the subjects. Home Scene (1871), Elizabeth at the Piano (1875), The Chess Players (1876), and Elizabeth Crowell and her Dog (1874), each dark in tonality, focus on the unsentimental characterization of individuals adopting natural attitudes in their homes.

It was in this vein that in 1872 he painted his first large scale portrait, Kathrin, in which the subject, Kathrin Crowell, is seen in dim light, playing with a kitten. In 1874 Eakins and Crowell became engaged; they were still engaged 5 years later, when Crowell died of meningitis in 1879.

Eakins returned to the Pennsylvania Academy to teach in 1876 as a volunteer after the opening of the school's new Frank Furness designed building. He became a salaried professor in 1878, and rose to director in 1882. His teaching methods were controversial: there was no drawing from antique casts, and students received only a short study in charcoal, followed quickly by their introduction to painting, in order to grasp subjects in true color as soon as practical. He encouraged students to use photography as an aid to understanding anatomy and the study of motion, and disallowed prize competitions. Although there was no specialized vocational instruction, students with aspirations for using their school training for applied arts, such as illustration, lithography, and decoration, were as welcome as students interested in becoming portrait artists.

Most notable was his interest in the instruction of all aspects of the human figure, including anatomical study of the human and animal body, and surgical dissection; there were also rigorous courses in the fundamentals of form, and studies in perspective which involved mathematics. As an aid to the study of anatomy, plaster casts were made from dissections, duplicates of which were furnished to students. A similar study was made of the anatomy of horses; acknowledging Eakins' expertise, in 1891 his friend, the sculptor William Rudolf O'Donovan, asked him to collaborate on the commission to create bronze equestrian reliefs of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, for the Soldiers' and Sailors' Arch in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.

The line between impartiality and questionable behavior was a thin one. When a female student, Amelia Van Buren, asked about the movement of the pelvis, Eakins invited her to his studio, where he undressed and "gave her the explanation as I could not have done by words only." Such incidents, coupled with the ambitions of his younger associates to oust him and take over the school themselves, created tensions between him and the Academy's board of directors. He was ultimately forced to resign in 1886, for removing the loincloth of a male model in a class where female students were present.

The forced resignation was a major setback for Eakins. His family was split, with his in-laws siding against him in public dispute. He struggled to protect his name against rumors and false charges, had bouts of ill health, and suffered a humiliation which he felt for the rest of his life. Eakins' popularity amongst the students was such that a number of them broke with the Academy and formed the Art Students' League of Philadelphia (1886–1893), where Eakins subsequently instructed. It was there that he met the student, Samuel Murray, who would become his protege and lifelong friend. He also lectured and taught at a number of other schools, including the Art Students League of New York, the National Academy of Design, Cooper Union, and the Art Students' Guild in Washington DC. Dismissed in March 1895 by the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia for again using a fully nude male model, he gradually withdrew from teaching by 1898.

Eakins has been credited with having "introduced the camera to the American art studio." During his study abroad, he was exposed to the use of photography by the French realists, though the use of photography was still frowned upon as a shortcut by traditionalists.

In the late 1870s, Eakins was introduced to the photographic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, particularly the equine studies, and became interested in using the camera to study sequential movement. In the mid-1880s, Eakins worked briefly alongside Muybridge in the latter's photographic studio at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Eakins soon performed his own independent motion studies, also usually involving the nude figure, and even developed his own technique for capturing movement on film. Whereas Muybridge's system relied on a series of cameras triggered to produce a sequence of individual photographs, Eakins preferred to use a single camera to produce a series of exposures superimposed on one negative. Eakins was more interested in precision measurements on a single image to aid in translating a motion into a painting, while Muybridge preferred separate images that could also be displayed by his primitive movie projector.

After Eakins obtained a camera in 1880, several paintings, such as Mending the Net (1881) and Arcadia (1883), are known to have been derived at least in part from his photographs. Some figures appear to be detailed transcriptions and tracings from the photographs by some device like a magic lantern, which Eakins then took pains to cover up with oil paint. Eakins' methods appear to be meticulously applied, and rather than shortcuts, were likely used in a quest for accuracy and realism.

An excellent example of Eakins' use of this new technology is his painting A May Morning in the Park, which relied heavily on photographic motion studies to depict the true gait of the four horses pulling the coach of patron Fairman Rogers. But in typical fashion, Eakins also employed wax figures and oil sketches to get the final effect he desired.


The so-called "Naked Series," which began in 1883, were nude photos of students and professional models that were taken to show real human anatomy from several specific angles, and were often hung and displayed for study at the school. Later, less regimented poses were taken indoors and out, of men, women, and children, including of Eakins and his wife. The most provocative, and the only ones combining males and females, were nude photos of Eakins and a female model. Although witnesses and chaperones were usually on site, and the poses were mostly traditional in nature, the sheer quantity of the photos and Eakins’ overt display of them may have undermined his standing at the Academy. In all, about eight hundred photographs are now attributed to Eakins and his circle, most of which are figure studies, both clothed and nude, and portraits. No other American artist of his time matched Eakins' interest in photography, nor produced a comparable body of photographic works.
In The Gross Clinic (1875), a renowned Philadelphia surgeon, Dr. Samuel D. Gross, is seen presiding over an operation to remove part of a diseased bone from a patient's thigh. Gross lectures in an amphitheater crowded with students at Jefferson Medical College. Eakins spent nearly a year on the painting, again choosing a novel subject, the discipline of modern surgery, in which Philadelphia was in the forefront. He initiated the project and may have had the goal of a grand work befitting a showing at the Centennial Exposition of 1876. Though rejected for the Art Gallery, the painting was shown on the centennial grounds at an exhibit of a U.S. Army Post Hospital. In sharp contrast, another Eakins submission, The Chess Players, was accepted by the Committee and was much admired at the Centennial Exhibition, and critically praised.

At 96 by 78 inches (240 × 200 cm), The Gross Clinic is one of the artist's largest works, and considered by some to be his greatest.

Other outstanding examples of his portraits include The Agnew Clinic (1889), Eakins' most important commission and largest painting, which depicted another eminent American surgeon, Dr. David Hayes Agnew, performing a mastectomy; The Dean's Roll Call (1899), featuring Dr. James W. Holland, and Professor Leslie W. Miller (1901), portraits of educators standing as if addressing an audience; a portrait of Frank Hamilton Cushing (c. 1895), in which the prominent ethnologist is seen performing an incantation at the Zuñi pueblo.

The Swimming Hole (1884–85) features Eakins' finest studies of the nude, in his most successfully constructed outdoor picture. The figures are those of his friends and students, and include a self-portrait. Although there are photographs by Eakins which relate to the painting, the picture's powerful pyramidal composition and sculptural conception of the individual bodies are completely distinctive pictorial resolutions. The work was painted on commission, but was refused.

In the late 1890s Eakins returned to the male figure, this time in a more urban setting. Taking the Count (1896), a painting of a prizefight, was his second largest canvas, but not his most successful composition. The same may be said of Wrestlers (1899). More successful was Between Rounds (1899), for which boxer Billy Smith posed seated in his corner at Philadelphia's Arena; in fact, all the principal figures were posed by models re-enacting what had been an actual fight. Salutat (1898), a frieze-like composition in which the main figure is isolated, "is one of Eakins' finest achievements in figure-painting."

The nature of Eakins sexuality and its impact on his art is a matter of intense scholarly debate. Strong circumstantial evidence points to Eakins having been accused of homosexuality during his lifetime, and there is little doubt that he was attracted to men, as evidenced in his photography, and three major paintings where male buttocks are a focal point: The Gross Clinic, Salutat, and The Swimming Hole. The latter, in which Eakins appears, is increasingly seen as sensuous and autobiographical.

Until recently, major Eakins scholars persistently denied he was homosexual, and such discussion was marginalized. While there is still no consensus, today discussion of homoerotic desire plays a large role in Eakins scholarship. The discovery of a large trove of Eakins' personal papers in 1984 has also driven reassessment of his life.

Eakins met Emily Sartain, daughter of John Sartain, while studying at the academy. Their romance floundered after Eakins moved to Paris to study, and she accused him of immorality. It is likely Eakins had told her of frequenting places where prostitutes assembled. The son of Eakins' physician also reported that Eakins had been "very loose sexually—went to France, where there are no morals, and the french morality suited him to a T."

In 1884, at age 40, Eakins married Susan Hannah Macdowell, the daughter of a Philadelphia engraver. Two years earlier Eakins' sister Margaret, who had acted as his secretary and personal servant, had died of typhoid. It has been suggested that Eakins married to replace her. Macdowell was 25 when Eakins met her at the Hazeltine Gallery where The Gross Clinic was being exhibited in 1875. Unlike many, she was impressed by the controversial painting and she decided to study with him at the Academy, which she attended for 6 years, adopting a sober, realistic style similar to her teacher's. Macdowell was an outstanding student and winner of the Mary Smith Prize for the best painting by a matriculating woman artist. 


After their childless marriage, she only painted sporadically and spent most of her time supporting her husband's career, entertaining guests and students, and faithfully backing him in his difficult times with the academy, even when some members of her family aligned against Eakins. 

She and Eakins both shared a passion for photography, both as photographers and subjects, and employed it as a tool for their art. She also posed nude for many of his photos and took images of him. Both had separate studios in their home. After Eakins' death in 1916, she returned to painting, adding considerably to her output right up to the 1930s, in a style that became warmer, looser, and brighter in tone. She died in 1938. Thirty-five years after her death, in 1973, she had her first one-woman exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
In the latter years of his life, Eakins' constant companion was the handsome sculptor Samuel Murray (right), who shared his interest in boxing and bicycling. The evidence suggests the relationship was more emotionally important to Eakins than that with his wife.

Eakins died on June 25, 1916, at the age of 72.

On November 11, 2006, the Board of Trustees at Thomas Jefferson University agreed to sell The Gross Clinic to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas for a record $68,000,000, the highest price for an Eakins painting as well as a record price for an individual American-made portrait. On December 21, 2006, a group of donors agreed to match the price in order to keep the painting in Philadelphia. It is displayed alternately at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.


See more of today's LGBTQ birthdays listed on the LGBT Daily Spotlight blog here.

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