Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist


Thomas Eakins is widely considered one of the great American painters, an artist whose uncompromising realism helped move American art from the Victorian era into the modern age. He is also acclaimed as a paragon of integrity, one who stood up for his artistic beliefs even when they brought him personal and professional difficulty—as when he was fired from the Pennsylvania Academy of Art for removing a model's loincloth in a drawing class.
Yet beneath the surface of Eakins's ...

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Thomas Eakins is widely considered one of the great American painters, an artist whose uncompromising realism helped move American art from the Victorian era into the modern age. He is also acclaimed as a paragon of integrity, one who stood up for his artistic beliefs even when they brought him personal and professional difficulty—as when he was fired from the Pennsylvania Academy of Art for removing a model's loincloth in a drawing class.
Yet beneath the surface of Eakins's pictures is a sense of brooding unease and latent violence—a discomfort voiced by one of his sitters who said his portrait "decapitated" her. In Eakins Revealed, art historian Henry Adams examines the dark side of Eakins's life and work, in a startling new biography that will change our understanding of this American icon. Based on close study of Eakins's work and new research in the Bregler papers, a major collection never fully mined by scholars, this volume shows Eakins was not merely uncompromising, but harsh and brutal both in his personal life and in his painting. Adams uncovers the bitter personal feuds and family tragedies surrounding Eakins—his mother died insane and his niece committed suicide amid allegations that Eakins had seduced her—and documents the artist's tendency toward psychological abuse and sexual harassment of those around him.
This provocative book not only unveils new facts about Eakins's life; more important, it makes sense, for the first time, of the enigmas of his work. Eakins Revealed promises to be a controversial biography that will attract readers inside and outside the art world, and fascinate anyone concerned with the mystery of artistic genius.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The most extraordinary biography I have ever read on an artist."—Andrew Wyeth

"At last a biography that brings fully to life the creator of American art's most astonishing works. Until this point the Thomas Eakins iconography has been staid and housebroken. Henry Adams' book breaks from that tradition brilliantly."—Jamie Wyeth

"With a wealth of fresh documentation and the page-turning momentum of a detective story, Henry Adams has uncovered the Gothic world of Eakins's private and public biography, a scandalous mixture of insanity, incest, suicide, and exhibitionism. But more important, he has woven this sinister story into new and deeper readings of Eakins's work, creating a seamless interpretation of how life is transformed into art."—Robert Rosenblum

"Adams has probed more deeply than anyone thus far. One need not agree with all his conclusions to recognize that he has made Eakins a far more provocative and compelling artist than we knew before.... This new biography of Eakins may impact our understanding of the artist the way Fawn Brodie's biography of Thomas Jefferson changed our view of the author of the Declaration of Independence. It's no longer possible to see Eakins as a simple American hero or to ignore the dark shadows that shaped his life."—Bonnie Barrett Stretch, ArtNews

"Cogent, exhaustive, and daring...a galvanizing work inspired by Adams' immersion in a long-lost, still little-studied cache of Eakins' papers.... Adams' meticulous, frequently audacious arguments and bold...psychological interpretations of Eakins' arresting and enigmatic paintings and photographs are as well crafted as they are incendiary, and this no-holds-barred deconstruction of an American icon will both outrage and intrigue readers as it sparks debate not only about Eakins but also about the symbiosis between art and life."—Booklist

"Written as compellingly as a novel, Eakins Revealed is a portrait of one of America's most important artists, warts and all. Yet, it avoids sensationalism, preferring instead to put Eakins into the kind of cultural and artistic contexts that deepen our understanding of him without excusing his sometimes inexcusable behavior. What Adams does in this compelling biography is introduce us to Eakins the man, whose sometimes disturbing behavior informed and inspired Eakins the artist."—Indianapolis Star

"Adams...has reexamined the evidence of the artist's life and art and found a hidden world of insanity, incest, suicide, and exhibitionism. In Eakins Revealed, he challenges the work of nearly every previous writer on Eakins.... All of this adds up to a critical bull's eye for the author."—Joseph Phelan, The Washington Times

"Adams has a fresh take that he works out with rigor and care. He links evidence for sexual trauma in Eakins's childhood to evidence of subsequent episodes of violence and sexual misconduct in a manner that is neither prurient nor moralizing. He displays a great affinity for, and astute observations of, the work itself, which includes some of the most strikng American paintings of the late 19th and 20th centuries."—Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195156683
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2005
  • Pages: 608
  • Product dimensions: 10.10 (w) x 6.90 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Henry Adams is Chair of the Department of Art History at Case Western Reserve University. An award-winning art historian, he is the author of more than 200 publications on American art, including books, exhibition catalogues, and scholarly and popular articles. He collaborated with Ken Burns on a PBS documentary about the painter Thomas Hart Benton.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2005

    Fascinating Reading, But Does Biography Inform Art?

    There is no question that Henry Adams scholarly book EAKINS REVEALED: THE SECRET LIFE OF AN AMERICAN ARTIST is an important tome in the already extensive library of the life and works of Thomas Eakins, an artist still considered by many to be the greatest American artist who ever lived. And if many Eakins' devotees find this information as gathered and regaled by Adams as an attempt to push Eakins of his historic pedestal, then I think the chosen title for this treatise has been misleading.Adams has poured over countless reams of notes and letters and documents and oral histories (all well documented and scrutinized in his extensive bibliography) and presents another aspect of Eakins' life - that of a crude, exhibitionist, sexually ambiguous vs disturbed, depressed man obsessed with nudity and body functions and a man whose family history of cruelty, incest and madness informed his paintings. The book is divided into three sections: Part One - The Eakins Legacy (including Eakins family background, odd living conditions, family quarrels, the deaths and insanities of those close to him, and including the infamous Loin Cloth Scandal that contributed to his being fired from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Part Two - Life and Art in which the previous information is shown to have influenced Eakins' portraits, rowing paintings, swimming paintings and the BIG paintings like 'The Gross Clinic', 'The Champion Single Sculls', 'William Rush' etc and Part Three - The Case of Thomas Eakins in which Adams pulls it all together maintaining that indeed because of Adams' scholarship, Eakins is still the most important painter America has produced.The question arises as to just how much of this Freudian muck raking is necessary and whether ultimately how important is this 'new' information to the viewer of Eakins' paintings. Yes, facts such as those presented (ad infinitum!) in this lengthy volume provide smarmy interest, if not material for a movie about a strange but great man. Others have written similarly about Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Artemsia Gentileschi, Bacon, Warhol, de Kooning, Pollock etc. No artist can stand before an easel and not have his/her interior feelings and experiences influence the painted work. But does all of this innuendo-plucking make or break an artist's place in history?Where Adams succeeds in making his points is in his painting by painting dissection of all of the Freudian implications of composition, indeterminate gender buttocks, hidden models, etc, yet his visual examples are so poorly presented in this volume that they are all but indecipherable. Would that the publishers had devoted more space to the paintings and even used color, an important component of Eakins' works, to make the lesson more workable.Yet as in Adams summary, Thomas Eakins is such an important painter that any additional information or perspective only results in expanding our appreciation for his greatness. Adams writes well (if excessively) and if the reader can drop preconceived prejudice that Adams is out to dethrone Eakins by prying into his psyche, this is actually a fine read. And given some time for reactionary responses to die down, EAKINS REVEALED will be an important contribution to the art libraries. Grady Harp

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