American Painter, Photographer, and Teacher
Summary of Thomas Eakins
Working primarily in the second half of the 19th century, Thomas Eakins painted portraits and sporting scenes with resolute Realism. His style renounced idealized and romantic depictions and advocated instead for precise investigation of the human form and the natural world. He embraced photography from its beginning as a tool to prepare his compositions and his bold and resolute paintings would greatly influence the next generation of American Realists known as the Ashcan School.
- Eakins was committed to scientific inquiry of natural laws to the point that he took anatomy lessons and observed dissections and surgeries. His uncompromising realism based on his astute observations brought a scientific rigor to his painting practice.
- Because he felt that professional artists needed to have complete knowledge of the human body and its workings, Eakins insisted on working from nude models. Controversially eschewing Victorian propriety, both his male and female students learned to draw observing the nude figure.
- Eakins' depictions of men and women were markedly different. His men, usually middle-class and professional, were portrayed at work or pursuing leisure activities, such as rowing and swimming. They embodied a virile masculinity with calm and repose. His women, however, were always shown in interior settings, and he emphasized their inner world, showing them in contemplation.
Biography of Thomas Eakins
Thomas Eakins was the eldest of five children born to Benjamin and Caroline Eakins. Despite a supportive and secure childhood, Eakins experienced losses early in life, including the death of his younger brother.
Important Art by Thomas Eakins
Thomas Eakins' painting The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake-Boat features a boat race on Pennsylvania's Schuylkill River. The focus is on the two-man crew in the foreground, wearing bright blue caps and pulling their oars through the water. They are in the process of passing a blue flag marker positioned in front and slightly right of the center foreground of the painting. In the background, other rowers can be seen and further in the distance black brushstrokes resemble a gathered crowd watching the race on the grassy, tree-filled field behind the river.
An athlete himself, rowing was one of Eakins' favorite leisure activities, and he created six large-scale paintings and a series of watercolors of the subject. Many of his rowing works featured the two brothers. Their good looks and personality made them popular figures in Philadelphia when they arrived from New York in 1872 to participate in races. Eakins began a friendship with the men and used them as models in many of his paintings for the next two years.
An important early work by Eakins, it bears the distinction of being the largest of his rowing-themed paintings. It also provides examples of the fine skill, attention to detail, and Realism that would dictate most of his oeuvre. Eakins depicts the figures at the height of motion. There is great emphasis on the muscles of the rowers' arms that are strained in the effort to push the oars through the water. This is a foreshadowing of the artist's growing obsession with the human form and of the many future nude studies and paintings that he would create.
An intense scene, Eakins' The Gross Clinic is large in scale, measuring eight feet wide and over six feet across. Eakins paints Dr. Samuel D. Gross, a teacher and surgeon at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, engaged in a teaching demonstration of a surgical procedure for the medical students seated behind him. Graphic in nature, five other doctors operate on a patient's infected thigh. This scientific endeavor contrasts sharply with the emotional reaction of the lone woman in the scene, presumably the patient's mother. Behind the operation on the right side of the painting, two figures watch the proceedings from the shadow of the room's doorway.
This work is one of Eakins' most important, well-known, and controversial paintings. It provides a clear example of his interest in scientific study and medicine. Perhaps as a nod to his own interest in the anatomy and dissection courses he took at the very college depicted in this work, Eakins decided to paint himself into the portrait and appears as one of the student observers. Eakins paid great attention to the technical details of the surgery, and the scene also shows great artistic skill and design in the way that he illuminates the otherwise dark scene with a wash of light coming down on the pale skin of the patient and the white sheets on which he rests. Dramatic effect and keen use of color is also demonstrated in the clear bursts of red used to show the blood on the victim's body and the assistants as well as the scalpel held by Dr. Gross.
Intended to be included in the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, Eakins wanted to create a complex portrait scene, but his Realism was all too real for the selection committee. The painting was shown, but in the U.S. Army Post Hospital exhibition, not the main exhibition space - certainly a snub to the artist. Reactions were mixed with some praising Eakins for his study of anatomy, but most questioning the purpose of the painting and its morbidity.
Thomas Eakins' William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River depicts Philadelphian sculptor and ship carver, William Rush, known for his allegorical works. In his studio, Rush stands in the background, carving a female figure based upon the nude woman posing in the foreground. To the right of the model a woman sits focused on her knitting, serving as the chaperone to the studio event. Daringly, the focal point of the work is not so much the artist or his model but a chair on which the model's clothes are draped. The bright white of her undergarments provide a burst of light in the otherwise darkly rendered scene.
An important work, this painting is the first of a limited number of historical paintings that Eakins made during his career. Despite the historical basis, however, the scene was one of the artist's imagination. The real model for Rush's sculpture most likely never posed nude. Additionally, some of Rush's other works visible in the studio were made after he completed this sculpture, thereby serving to show the artistic license Eakins took to make a more interesting, and arguably more controversial, scene.
The nude female in the foreground generated much controversy at the time. For some the insult lay in the model's unattractiveness, but others were shocked by the brazen way that Eakins presented her. As one New York Times writer remarked, "What ruins the picture is much less the want of beauty in the model, ... than the presence in the foreground of the clothes of that young woman, cast carelessly over a chair. This gives the shock which makes one think about the nudity - and at once the picture becomes improper!"
This painting serves as an early example of the obsession Eakins would have with the nude figure throughout his career. Often photographing himself and students in the nude, demanding that females have equal opportunity to work from male nudes in his classes, and painting numerous works in which a nude figure is prominently featured, nudity is a common thread that runs through his entire body of work. Eakins insisted that working from the nude form is the only way to truly understand and accurately depict the human body, but rumors persisted that his interest was more deviant.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Thomas Eakins
- The Revenge of Thomas EakinsOur Pickby Sidney D. Kirkpatrick
- Thomas Eakins: His Life and Artby William Innes Homer
- The Paris Letters of Thomas Eakinsby Thomas Eakins and William Innes Homer
- Thomas EakinsOur Pickby Darrel Sewell
- Thomas Eakins Rediscovered: Charles Bregler's Thomas Eakins Collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Artsby Kathleen A. Foster
- Eakins Comes Out - An 1885 painting set in Bryn Mawr gave Philadelphia something to whisper aboutOur PickAn 1885 painting set in Bryn Mawr gave Philadelphia something to whisper about. / By Mark E. Dixon / Mainline Today
- Is Thomas Eakins a Great Artist?Our PickBy James F. Cooper / Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center
- Three Ways of Looking at Thomas EakinsOur PickBy Christopher Benfey / The New York Review of Books / March 29, 2007
- Was Eakins gay - or just a real troublemaker?Our PickBy Mary Panzer / The Chicago Tribune / July 31, 2002
- National Gallery of Art - Wyeth Lecture in American Art: "Thomas Eakins and the 'Grand Manner' Portrait"This video is a recording of the lecture given at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC on October 27, 2005 by Doctor Kathleen Foster, curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The lecture focuses on the grand manner portraits created by Thomas Eakins during his career with a focus on how the portraits of others were often ways for the artist to reveal elements of his own personality and life.
- Penn Reading Project 2009: The Agnew ClinicDoctor Kathleen Foster provides a detailed discussion of Thomas Eakins' The Agnew Clinic, including a comparison to his earlier The Gross Clinic.
- "St. Nick Weasels His Way Into More Art: Ed Wheeler Santa Classics," December 17, 2016Philadelphia based photographer Ed Wheeler incorporates two Thomas Eakins' paintings in his practice of dressing as Santa Claus and inserting himself into classic paintings. In so doing, Thomas Eakins' rowing and boxing works have entered the realm of popular culture.