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Portrait: The Life of Thomas Eakins

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  • Posted October 15, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A Conversational Biography of Thomas Eakins

    For all of the information that is available about the life and times and legacy of Thomas Eakins (1844 - 1916), considered by many to be the first truly great American painter, each author who approaches the enigmatic artist takes a different stance. For William S. McFeely, an authoritative writer, the purpose of the direction of this book lies in the title - this is a portrait of the life of Eakins, and as such is more concerned with the intellectual, emotional, sexual, and psychological aspects of Eakins that informed his paintings. For some it will work, for others it will seem a bit too conversational and almost gossipy. Thomas Eakins was greatly influenced/controlled by his fellow sports' lover father who at least had the good sense to encourage the artistic aspect of his son's abilities. Eakins, according to McFeely, had a dark inner life, an almost manic-depressive nature, and it is this psychological conflict that perhaps allowed him to paint some of the most probing portraits of his time. But Eakins was also a man who hungered after experience that would help him develop as an artist. He traveled to Europe and spent a good amount of time training with the master Jean-Léon Gérôme at the École des beaux-arts in Paris and absorbed his teacher's ability to render the figure in a classical mode. But when he discovered the paintings in the Prado, particularly those of Velázquez, his own style began to develop, a style that would allow him to create not only the famous paintings of sports but also the deeply psychological paintings such as 'The Gross Clinic'. McFeely describes Eakins' marriage in very sensitive and knowledgeable terms, and he also is able to explore Eakins' sexual confusion: it seems apparent to us today that he was homosexual in his friendships and in his obsession with the male nude, photographs of nude boys and students and men, and his paintings such as the Swimming canvas that is one of his finest achievements. But that term was not even created during Eakins' time and it is a well established fact that male-male relationships that explored sexuality were far more common in the first half of the 19th century than in later times. The pleasure of this book is how non-judgmental McFeely is and his purpose is simply to inform the reader of the various possibilities in how to look at the works of Thomas Eakins with a richer mental picture of who the man was. He dwells less on the famous squabbles with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and offers us a more personal insight into the artist who continues to grow in stature with the passing years. One of the most informative aspects of this biography is how McFeely describes Eakins' portraits as windows into the artist's psyche: this part of the book is particularly well written. Grady Harp

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