Thomas Eakins - Biography and Legacy
American Painter, Photographer, and Teacher
Biography of Thomas Eakins
Childhood and Education
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.
Raised in a family that valued education, Eakins graduated from Central High School in 1861 with a focus on art. He assisted his father, a writing teacher, as a calligrapher before enrolling in the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1862. Here Eakins took courses in drawing and focused on anatomy, a continuing interest throughout his career. To learn more he attended anatomy and dissection courses at Jefferson Medical College in 1864 and briefly considered a career as a surgeon. Upon turning twenty-one, in order to continue his studies uninterrupted, he paid the sum of twenty-four dollars to avoid being conscripted into the Union Army during the Civil War.
As with many artists of the period, Eakins completed his art education and early training in Europe where he stayed from 1866 to 1870. Spending the majority of his time in Paris he attended the École des Beaux-Arts where he had the distinction of studying with the famed French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme who was known for his focus on the human figure.
What would become his only stay in Europe was a mixed experience. He greatly enjoyed his study of Diego Velázquez's paintings while in Spain and got his first experience of parental-free supervision, which included visiting a brothel with others in his class. Of this adventure he stated, "I saw more of new character and manner than I would ever have discovered by myself." However, he disliked the classical approach and the prudish attitudes of Victorian Europe regarding their objection to the depiction of the nude figure. As he wrote to his father, 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."
Upon returning from Europe in 1870, rather than moving to New York City as so many artists of the time were doing, Eakins chose to stay in Philadelphia where he threw himself into his artistic pursuits, painting portraits and a series of rowing scenes. These early years as an artist were also filled with hardship. His mother was mentally ill and died in 1872. Then in 1873 while on a hunting trip, Eakins contracted malaria and was incapacitated for two months.
Quickly his portraiture work began to garner him attention, although it was not always well received as was the case with one of his most famous paintings The Gross Clinic (1875). He also received an important commission in 1877 to paint a portrait of President Rutherford B. Hayes, which has since been lost. The experience was not an easy one for Eakins, who found the President too restless to capture and likened the process to that of painting "a little animal."
His pursuits as a teacher ran concurrently with his painting career, and in 1876 Eakins became a professor's assistant at the Pennsylvania Academy and later an unpaid teacher at the Art Students' Union. It would not be until fall of 1879 that he would receive a full paid professor job at the Academy.
Photography would play an important role in Eakins' work, which began with the purchase of his first camera in the summer of 1880. Once Eakins fully embraced the art form, his preliminary sketches were largely replaced with numerous photographs of a scene or subject, which he would then use as the basis of his paintings. Eakins worked briefly with Eadweard Muybridge on his animal locomotion projects, and then in 1883, he began photographic studies of his own using a different technique. He later lectured on the subject in an 1885 talk on equine motion at the Pennsylvania Academy. His use of photography, however, proved controversial, as he was accused of tracing his paintings from projected photographs, a claim Eakins vehemently denied.
Eakins' interest in photography was as much about the artistic possibilities of the medium as it was about technological advancement. Throughout his career he maintained a strong interest in science, medicine, and other art forms. Choosing to surround himself with those in other disciplines, from the late 1880s onward, Eakins would meet with scientists and musicians. These weekly gatherings were affectionately referred to by Eakins' wife as "Tom's Sunday Club."
Throughout his life, family was important to Eakins. After the tragic death of his fiancée Kathrin Crowell of meningitis in 1879, Eakins married a former student Susan Macdowell in January of 1884. The couple had no children, and Macdowell dedicated herself to helping Eakins further his career. His family members were often the source of his portraits and appeared as subjects in his works. His father was especially supportive and allowed Eakins to convert the top floor of the family home into a studio. In a foreshadowing of scandal to come, Eakins' desire to work with the nude figure led to an arrangement between father and son that the activities in his studio were to be unquestioned. A written agreement between the two included the caveat that the artist had, "the right to bring to his studio his models, his pupils, his sitters, and whomsoever he will, and both Benjamin Eakins and Thomas Eakins recognizing the necessity and usage in a figure painter of professional secrecy, it is understood that the coming of persons to the studio is not to be the subject of comment or question by the family."
Eakins' desire to capture the true essence of the human form that began during his European trip as a young artist deepened as his work matured and would prove controversial on numerous occasions. In a mindset very much ahead of his time, Eakins believed if female students were admitted to his classes then they, too, should study the naked form. The repressive nature of society at that time meant that few shared the same view. Male students drawing from nude females was tolerated, but it was not viewed as proper that women be allowed to see and draw a nude male. Eakins pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable within the drawing classes of the academy, removing the scarfs that usually covered the female models' faces, and in an act that proved to be too much in January 1886, he removed a loincloth of a male model in a room that included female students. Ordered not to do this again, he was then asked to resign, which he did on February 9, 1886. Eakins passionately defended his actions, stating, "The thing is a nightmare ... It seems to me that no one should work in a life class who thinks it is wrong to undress if needful .. Was ever so much smoke for so little fire? I never in my life seduced a girl, nor tried to, but what else can people think of all this rage and insanity." Following the incident, thirty-eight of his students left the Pennsylvania Academy, and in an effort to provide a place where they could still be instructed by Eakins, they established the Art Students' League of Philadelphia.
The controversy did not not end with Eakins' resignation from the Academy. His sister's husband led a charge to expel him from the Philadelphia Sketch Club on an undefined charge of "conduct unworthy of gentleman and discreditable to the organization." He was officially censured and asked to resign from his honorary membership, which Eakins refused, but the attempt caused a rift in his family. Eakins' father threw his daughter and her husband out of the family house, and Eakins and his sister never reconciled.
The effects of these scandals took their toll on Eakins, who suffering from depression, traveled in the summer of 1887 to a ranch in the Dakota Territory. The trip proved restorative, and he took many photographs and created paintings depicting cowboys and ranch life. Writing to his wife of his adventures, Eakins described his travels, "I think you would laugh to see me devour a big hunk of meat lifted out of the big fat pot it was fried in." He even bought a horse he named Billy and brought it back to Philadelphia to use as a model in future works. In fact, he also had a pet monkey named Bobby that was known to wreak havoc on his studio visitors.
The last decades of Eakins' career were no quieter than those before. He received important commissions, including one to create a portrait of Dr. David Hayes Agnew, which led to the painting of his iconic work The Agnew Clinic (1889), another to collaborate on statues of Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln, and the opportunity to create relief panels on the Trenton Battle Monument in New Jersey celebrating the Revolutionary War. While never known for his religious beliefs, his later years included portraits of many clergy members whom he befriended during Sunday afternoon visits to the nearby Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary.
Tragic and bizarre events continued to plague Eakins despite his flourishing career. In 1888 a former student, Lilian Hammitt, whose portrait Eakins was painting, developed a delusion that the artist was going to leave his wife and marry her. Eakins immediately stopped the portrait sessions, but she was found later by the police wandering the streets in a bathing suit and was institutionalized. Later in 1896, Eakins' beloved niece Eleanor, who had lived in the family home and taken painting lessons from Eakins, was institutionalized for mental illness, and in 1897, she committed suicide by shooting herself after informing her parents that her uncle had abused her in some undescribed way. This incident caused a firm break with yet another sister and her family.
In an ironic turn of fate in 1904 he was awarded a medal for a portrait by the Pennsylvania Academy who had demanded his resignation years before. Considering the circumstances under which he left the institution, it is not surprising that he was hostile over the award and upon receiving it stated, "I think you've got a heap of impudence to give me a medal." Shortly after he and friend Samuel Murray rode on bicycles to the United States Mint and turned in the medal for the sum of seventy-three dollars.
The last years of Eakins' life found him suffering from health issues, and his artistic output decreased. After 1908, his wife helped him to finish his last works. The artist died at the age of 71, likely of heart failure. Having felt that for the large part his art was not fully appreciated, Eakins once famously stated, "My honors are misunderstanding, persecution and neglect, enhanced because unsought." One can only speculate as to how he would have felt if he knew that his beloved Philadelphians would fight to keep his iconic Gross Clinic (1875) in the city when the Jefferson Medical College attempted to sell the painting almost a century later. The outrage was such that the city and private donors rallied to help raise the significant funds to keep the work, enabling it to ultimately be purchased jointly by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
The Legacy of Thomas Eakins
Constantly at odds with the art establishment Eakins may well have failed to imagine the great mark he would leave on the art world. His style of modern realism, depicting themes of American life with brutal honesty, laid the foundation for the work of the next generation of artists such as Robert Henri, Edward Hopper, Dorothea Lange, Reginald Marsh, and Walker Evans. Contemporary artists have also drawn inspiration from Eakins as can be seen in the subjects of the portraits of British artist Lucian Freud.