Born July 25, 1844
Died June 25, 1916
"Respectability in art is appalling."
A traveling exhibit of the major paintings of Thomas Eakins in 2001 attracted large crowds and strong critical praise. It was far different for Eakins during his lifetime as an artist working in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from the Reconstruction era (1865–77) to the early twentieth century. He sold a little over two dozen paintings and his work received a mild amount of attention during his lifetime. In modern times, however, he is regarded as the classic American painter of the Realist style. "Eakins's art was a monumental achievement," wrote art critic Hilton Kramer in 2001. "He was the first major painter of his period to accept completely the realities of contemporary American life and to create out of them a strong and profound art."
Science and art
Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins was born on July 25, 1844, in Philadelphia. He was the first of five children of Benjamin Eakins and Caroline Cowperthwait Eakins. Benjamin Eakins was a writing master and teacher. A writing master provides artistic penmanship, ornamental script (elegantly decorative lettering), and design services for documents, certificates, and books.
Thomas Eakins would later paint a portrait of his father called The Writing Master. Typical of many of Eakins's works, the painting shows a skillful man deeply engaged in his work. Painstaking detail of the hands of the writing master is important in this work. Critics believe such attention to detail is intended to show the character of the person being represented, in this case reflecting the care for craftsmanship that Eakins observed in his father.
At the age of thirteen, Eakins entered Central High School of Philadelphia, which was established twenty years earlier as Pennsylvania's first public high school and provided an advanced curriculum with an emphasis on science. Combining his knowledge of science with his enthusiasm for art, Eakins enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, America's oldest art academy, after he graduated from high school. He studied there from 1862 to 1866 while the Civil War (1861–65) was being fought. He had paid a bounty to avoid the Civil War draft, part of a law that allowed someone to, in essence, hire a substitute.
At the Academy, Eakins honed his drawing skills. Fascinated with anatomy, especially the construction of bones and muscles, Eakins took courses at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. His experience at the medical college included dissecting human corpses of people who had donated their bodies to science.
At the age of twenty-one, Eakins traveled to Paris to study to become a painter and sculptor. He was accepted into the famous École des Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts), the leading art academy of its time. Eakins was mentored by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), a young teacher who encouraged Eakins to study sculpture and portraiture. To stress the importance of becoming a craftsman, Gérôme emphasized study and firsthand knowledge of subjects an artist plans to depict. Preparing for portraiture, Eakins studied anatomy in class and attended autopsies, where dead human bodies are examined to determine the cause of death. Study and observation prepared Eakins to capture in painting the musculature, structure, and other fine details of the human body.
Eakins spent his last year in Paris working and studying at the private studio of Léon Bonnat (1833–1922), a famous portrait painter. Following a tradition of French portrait artists, Eakins traveled to Spain, as Bonnat had done when he was a budding artist. Several major Spanish artists were renowned for their ability to render realistic human body details in their portrait painting. The style suited Eakins, who emphasized the use of science and the intellect in his painting. Eakins spent seven months in Spain at the age of twenty-five. He painted rarely, spending most of the time carefully studying the works of such master Spanish painters as Diego Velázquez (1599–1660) and Francisco Goya (1746–1828).
Painter of Philadelphia
Eakins returned home to Philadelphia on July 4, 1870. His father created a studio for Eakins on the fourth floor of the family home. Eakins painted scenes and images he experienced in daily life in Philadelphia. He taught painting as well. Eakins became known around Philadelphia for eccentric behavior: Living in a polite and somewhat prudish social scene, he dressed very casually and spoke his mind, often offending respectable society. Dedicated to painting, Eakins worked slowly and methodically.
Eakins enjoyed the outdoors, whether walking around and observing daily life in Philadelphia or pursuing his hobbies as a sportsman—hunting, fishing, boating, and riding. Many of his early paintings were scenes of outdoor life in and around the city, including people sailing and fishing on the Delaware River or hunting in marshes in nearby New Jersey. One of his most famous paintings, Max Schmitt in the Single Shell (1871), shows a man rowing on the Schuylkill River. Eakins also painted pictures of his family and friends in their homes.
In 1876, Philadelphia was enjoying the Centennial Celebration, the hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in the city. Among the festivities planned was an exhibition of paintings, and artists were invited to submit entries for consideration. Eakins submitted several paintings, including one that eventually became acknowledged as his masterpiece.
Eakins began planning a portrait of Samuel D. Gross (1805–1884), who was known as America's foremost surgeon. Gross worked in Philadelphia and Eakins attended some of the live surgical demonstrations Gross performed while lecturing to students. The painting that resulted, The Gross Clinic (1875), shows a chloroformed patient (chloroform was used to induce unconsciousness) on a table attended by four medical assistants, while a man in the center, Dr. Gross, speaks to an audience of medical students. In one hand the doctor holds a scalpel on which there is some blood from an incision he has just made on the thigh of the patient, but Gross is turned away from the patient and talking to the assembly. The doctor dominates the picture and suggests a character of intelligence and mastery.
The painting was placed in a portion of the exhibition dedicated to the medical sciences. Eakins was not able to sell the painting immediately; it eventually sold for $200 and was exhibited in Chicago, Illinois; St. Louis, Missouri; and Buffalo, New York. Now his most famous work, The Gross Clinic hangs at the Jefferson Medical Clinic in Philadelphia. The Centennial Exposition accepted other character studies by Eakins represented in Chess Players and Baseball.
Interest in photography
In 1876, Eakins began teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He became head of the Academy in 1879. There he met Susan H. Macdowell, an art student. They were married in 1884. The couple lived in a modest home with an art studio in a third-floor room. Eakins installed a blackboard in the dining room so he could sketch out his ideas at any time. He had another studio at the top of an office building.
Eakins began using the developing medium of photography as an aid to painting. He collaborated in 1884 with pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) to capture the motion of humans and animals. From photographs, he could recreate human features with even more precise detail, and he used them as well in his classes. Eakins also pursued his interest in sculpture during this period. He produced several full-scale anatomical casts as well as models of human forms he could recreate in his paintings. Critics generally agree Eakins might have become equally renowned as a sculptor, but he maintained his emphasis on painting.
In 1886, Eakins resigned his position at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts over a dispute that reflected his differences with society around him. Eakins insisted on using nude models in his classes. When ordered to stop, Eakins left the Academy and started his own school. A good number of his students at the Academy followed Eakins to the Arts Students League of Philadelphia, where he taught for eight years.
Seeing what is
After leaving the academy, Eakins produced several of his most memorable paintings. He had wanted to paint a portrait of Walt Whitman (1819–1892), the famous American poet, and Whitman obliged. The result was a dynamic portrait of the poet, capturing the essence of Whitman with his grizzly beard and robust face. Of Eakins, Whitman said, "I never knew of but one artist, and this is Tom Eakins, who could resist the temptation to see what they think ought to be rather than what is."
Other famous paintings of this period include Agnew Clinic (1889), which recalls The Gross Clinic. The subjects are similar—both feature a famous doctor lecturing an audience while surgery is being performed on a patient. The later painting is more relaxed and without some of the artistic embellishments of The Gross Clinic. Miss Amelia Van Buren (1891), another major work, shows a seated, mature woman looking away, wistfully. Like all of Eakins's work, the character of the person being represented is revealed as much in her hands and posture as in her facial expression.
These paintings helped bring Eakins his first significant public interest. He held an exhibition in Philadelphia in 1896, and in 1902, after having painted for over thirty-five years, Eakins was invited to join the National Academy of Design. To mark the occasion, he painted a self-portrait, which he referred to as his "diploma." The painting shows Eakins as a weary but resolute older man. Of the relative lack of recognition he received during his lifetime, Eakins said, "My honors are misunderstanding, persecution & neglect, enhanced because unsought." When the National Academy of Design awarded him a medal, he had it melted down to extract the gold, which he sold for cash.
During his later years Eakins became overweight and sluggish, whereas in youth he had been slim and athletic. In 1910, he suffered kidney problems and could no longer pay attention to painting. He worked little during the last six years, and died in 1916.
For More Information
Books and Periodicals
Carter, Alice A. The Essential Thomas Eakins. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.
Homer, William Innes. Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art. New York: Abbeville Press, 2002.
Kramer, Hilton. "Realist Thomas Eakins Back, Still Beloved." New York Observer (October 15, 2001): p. 1.
"American Masters: Thomas Eakins." PBS.http://www.pbs.org/eakins/biography.htm (accessed on June 21, 2004).
"Thomas Eakins: American Realist." Philadelphia Museum of Art.http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/exhibits/eakins/index.shtml (accessed on June 21, 2004).
"Thomas Eakins." Artcyclopedia.http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/eakins_thomas.html (accessed on June 21, 2004).
Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) was the most powerful figure painter and portrait painter of his time in America. He was a leading naturalist and one of the era's strongest painters of the current scene.
Thomas Eakins was born on July 25, 1844, in Philadelphia. After his graduation from Central High School, he studied for 5 years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he drew chiefly from casts. To make up for his lack of study of living models, he entered Jefferson Medical College and took the regular courses in anatomy, including dissecting cadavers and observing operations.
In 1866 Eakins left for Paris, where he went through 3 years of rigorous academic training at the École des Beaux-Arts under Jean Léon Gérôme. He also traveled in Italy and Germany. In December 1869 he went to Spain, In Madrid's Prado Museum his discovery of 17th-century Spanish painting, especially the work of Diego Velázquez and Jusepe de Ribera, came as a revelation after the insipidity of the French Salons. After a winter in Seville, Eakins went back to Paris. In July 1870 he returned to Philadelphia, where he would live for the rest of his life, never going abroad again.
Eakins now took for subjects the life of his place and period, Philadelphia of the 1870s; and with uncompromising realism he built his art out of this. His first American paintings were scenes of outdoor life in and around the city—rowing on the Schuylkill River, sailing and fishing on the Delaware River, hunting in the New Jersey marshes— and domestic genre picturing his family and friends in their homes. These works revealed utter honesty, a sure grasp of character, and an unsentimental but deep emotional attachment to his community and its people. From the first, they had the strong construction, the sense of form and of three-dimensional design, and the complete clarity of vision that were to mark Eakins's style thenceforth. The most important work of this period was the Gross Clinic (1875), portraying the great surgeon Samuel D. Gross operating before his students in Jefferson Medical College. The painting shocked the public and critics but established Eakins's reputation as a leader of American naturalism.
Eakins had an unusual combination of artistic and scientific gifts. Anatomy, higher mathematics, and the science of perspective were major interests to him and played an essential part in his painting. As early as 1880, he was using photography as an aid to painting, as a means of studying the body and its actions, and as an independent form of pictorial expression. In 1884 he collaborated with the pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge in photographing the motion of men and animals, but Eakins improved on Muybridge's method of employing a battery of cameras by using a single camera.
Another of Eakins's interests was sculpture. Sometimes he made small models for figures in his paintings, and he produced several full-scale anatomical casts. In the 1880s and early 1890s he executed eight original pieces. All of them were in relief, some in very high relief, almost in the round. Although he did not try to make sculpture his major medium, the strength and skill of his few pieces indicate that he might have achieved results as substantial as in painting.
A natural teacher, in 1876 Eakins began instructing at the Pennsylvania Academy and in 1879 became acting head of the school. Discarding old-fashioned methods, he subordinated drawing from casts to painting from the model, and based instruction on thorough study of the human body, including anatomy courses and dissection— innovations that were to revolutionize art education in America. But his stubborn insistence on the nude, particularly the completely nude male model in lectures on anatomy, scandalized the academy trustees and the more proper women students, and he was forced to resign in 1886. Most of his men students seceded from the academy and started the Art Students' League of Philadelphia, which continued for about 7 years, with Eakins as its unpaid head.
Until his early 40s Eakins had painted varied aspects of contemporary life, outdoors and indoors, as well as many portraits. But the academy affair and the lack of popular success for his paintings (at 36 he had sold only nine pictures for a total of a little over $2,000) probably explain why in the middle 1880s he abandoned his picturing of the broader American scene, except occasionally, and concentrated on portraiture.
In this more restricted field Eakins displayed growing mastery. Those who sat for his portraits were not the wealthy and fashionable, but his friends and students and individuals who attracted him by their qualities of mind—scientists, physicians, fellow artists, musicians, the Catholic clergy. They were pictured without a trace of flattery but with a profound sense of their identity as individuals. Eakin's sure grasp of character, his thorough knowledge of the human body, and his psychological penetration gave his portraits intense vitality. His paintings of women, in contrast to the bodiless idealism of his academic contemporaries, had a flesh-and-blood reality and sense of sex. Eakin's portraiture forms the most mature pictorial record of the American people of his time, equal to John Singleton Copley's record of colonial Americans.
But none of these qualities made for worldly success. Commissions were rare. Usually Eakins asked sitters to pose, then gave them the paintings. Even so, his sitters often did not bother to take their portraits, so that he was left with a studio full of them. After the 1880s he suffered increasing neglect from the academic art world—or actual opposition, as when they refused to exhibit the masterpiece of his mature years, the Agnew Clinic (1889). In spite of this lack of recognition, he continued to work in the same uncompromisingly realistic style, and some of his strongest works were painted during the 1900s. Finally, in old age, he received a small shower of honors.
In 1884 Eakins had married Susan Hannah Macdowell, a former pupil and a gifted painter. They had no children but many students and friends. Fortunately he had a modest income from his father, and they lived in the family home, where he had lived since childhood. It was there that he died on June 25, 1916.
Eakins's work had a vitality, substance, and sculptural form greater than that of any other American painter of his generation. His figure compositions, particularly the relatively few based on the nude or seminude figure, achieved plastic design of a high order. The prudish limitations of his environment, combined with his own intransigent realism, thwarted full expression of his healthy sensuousness and his potentialities in design. But with all these reservations, Eakins's art was a monumental achievement. He was the first major painter of his period to accept completely the realities of contemporary American life and to create out of them a strong and profound art.
The first monograph on Eakins is Lloyd Goodrich, Thomas Eakins: His Life and Work (1933). Margaret McHenry, Thomas Eakins Who Painted (1946), adds personal material about the artist and his sitters and friends. Roland McKinney, Thomas Eakins (1942), and Fairfield Porter, Thomas Eakins (1959), are shorter biographical and critical accounts, with numerous illustrations. Sylvan Schendler, Eakins (1967), is a full-length study of Eakins and his art in relation to American society and culture of his period and includes 158 illustrations.
Hendricks, Gordon, The life and work of Thomas Eakins, New York: Grossman Publishers, 1974.
Homer, William Innes, Thomas Eakins: his life and art, New York: Abbeville Press, 1992. □