Eakins, Susan Hannah (1851–1938)

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Eakins, Susan Hannah (1851–1938)

American painter and wife of artist Thomas Eakins. Name variations: Susan Hannah Macdowell. Born Susan Hannah Macdowell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 21, 1851; died in Philadelphia on December 27, 1938; daughter and fifth of eight children of William H. (a noted engraver) and Hannah Trimble (Gardner) Macdowell; sister of Elizabeth Macdowell; studied at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, 1876–82; married Thomas Eakins (1844–1916, a painter), on January 19, 1884; no children.

The work of painter Susan Hannah Eakins was long ignored. Her first solo exhibition—a collection of over 50 oils and watercolors—was held at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1973, 35 years after her death. Her husband Thomas Eakins, now recognized as one of America's finest painters though his reputation was by no means secure in his own day, maintained that she was one of the best female artists in America. Neither Susan's position as a gifted and promising painter before her marriage, nor her husband's claim, brought her the attention in her lifetime that she would receive posthumously.

One of eight children of Hannah Gardner Macdowell and William H. Macdowell, a distinguished engraver and a decided liberal, Susan Eakins was raised in a progressive and artistic environment. She and her sister Elizabeth Macdowell were encouraged in their interest in art and had a studio in the attic of the Macdowell home. In 1876, Susan visited the Haseltine Galleries, curious to see Thomas Eakins' scandalous painting of a surgical operation, The Gross Clinic; though impressed, she was too shy to approach the artist who was in attendance. Instead, she entered the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), intent on studying with Thomas; she would also study under Christian Schussele.

During her studies at PAFA from 1876 to 1882, Susan exhibited intermittently and won several prizes. The Charles Toppan draughtsmanship prize (1882) followed the Mary Smith Prize for best PAFA woman artist (1879), an award later bestowed on such eminent artists as Cecilia Beaux , Emily Sartain , and Alice Barber Stephens . After her official matriculation at the academy, Eakins stopped exhibiting. It was not until 1905 that one of her paintings, an 1877 portrait of her teacher Christian Schussele, was again exhibited at the academy.

After her 1884 marriage to Thomas, Susan's primary concern became her husband's art, but reports that she had completely relinquished her own work are untrue. According to Susan P. Casteras , a leading authority on the artist, there was no friction or sense of rivalry between the two artists, who maintained separate studios in the Eakins' family house that they shared with Thomas' father. Both accepted and encouraged the other's work, although Susan Eakins' efforts to promote her husband are more well known. While he was still in charge of instruction at the Philadelphia Academy, she shielded him from household business and saw to it that all his free time could be devoted to his work. Eakins, who was said to possess a remarkable buoyancy of spirit and rollicking sense of fun, entertained her husband's students and friends, answered his correspondence, and supervised the shipping of his works to exhibitions (most of his paintings were returned unsold). She stood by him through controversy over his teaching methods and his dismissal from the academy, supposedly for removing the loincloth from a male model in a women's life class. It is rumored that she also knew of and endured her husband's affair with his childhood friend and sometimes model Mary Adeline Williams , who came to live with the couple in 1900. A portrait painted around 1899 reveals a troubled Eakins who appears old beyond her years.

Susan Eakins was primarily a portraitist who specialized in unsentimental domestic scenes depicting one or two subjects sitting while reading or knitting. During her student days, many of her portraits were of family and friends, characterized by the focus and the convincing anatomy of the figures, especially the faces and hands. During her middle period, the three decades of her marriage, Eakins began to consolidate the technical lessons she had learned from her husband into her own work. Thomas' influences are seen in her thin and broadly brushed backgrounds, against which the figures are solidly built up. Her palette—predominately warm, earthy, somber colors—also conformed to Thomas' color schemes. Susan Eakins often used her husband as a subject. Among her most poignant images of him is a drawing, executed towards the end of his life, in which he is depicted, old and tired, stroking a cat, one of the many animals in the household.

After Thomas' death in 1916, Susan Eakins' style changed radically. The solidity of her forms weakened, often into comparatively shapeless masses, as she became freer and more fluent. Her palette gave way to cooler hues, and she occasionally made use of vivid blues, reds, and brilliant yellows. Casteras regarded the quality of Eakins' later work as erratic, and remarked on a new freedom from the tragic element that had permeated her earlier work. Susan Eakins continued to paint until her 86th year, when a fall rendered her too weak and dizzy to continue. On December 27, 1938, she died of arteriosclerosis in the home in which her husband had spent his childhood and they had shared their married life. Although her first love was painting, Susan Eakins was also an accomplished pianist and an amateur photographer.


Baigell, Matthew. Dictionary of American Artists. NY: Harper and Row, 1979.

Casteras, Susan P. Susan Macdowell Eakins. Exhibition Catalogue, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1973.

Flam, Jack. "Eakins in Light and Shadow," in American Heritage. Vol. 42, no. 5. September 1991, pp. 57–68.

Wilmerding, John, ed. Thomas Eakins. Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 1994.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts