Portrait: A Life of Thomas Eakins

Portrait: A Life of Thomas Eakins

by William S. McFeely
     
 

A brilliant historian's reconstruction of the life of an American painter.
Thomas Eakins, a native of Philadelphia, painted two worlds: one sure of its valuesthe surgeons, inventors, musicians, and athletes of his timeand another that reflected his own struggles with depression and sexual identity. In this evenhanded account of those struggles, William S.

Overview

A brilliant historian's reconstruction of the life of an American painter.
Thomas Eakins, a native of Philadelphia, painted two worlds: one sure of its valuesthe surgeons, inventors, musicians, and athletes of his timeand another that reflected his own struggles with depression and sexual identity. In this evenhanded account of those struggles, William S. McFeely sheds new light on Eakins's genius and on the evocative melancholy of his portraits, particularly of women, which include many of his remarkable wife, Susan McDowell Eakins. Those deeply perceptive paintings may be the greatest expressions of his art.
One of America's leading historians, McFeely has long been an interpreter of nineteenth-century American writing. A fascinating aspect of this narrative is how he brings the painter into the company of Thoreau, Melville, and Whitman, with whom Eakins formed a deep friendship. The famous painting Swimming, for example, is likened to Walden, Typee, and to passages in Leaves of Grass.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this insightful book, the author, who won a Pulitzer for Grant: A Biography, focuses on the problematic aspects of the life of American realist painter Thomas Eakins and attempts to show how these are reflected in his works. Eakins (1844-1916) had a fortunate early life, with art studies in Paris and Spain, a sympathetic wife and a promising career at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Nevertheless, he suffered from a sense of failure, bouts of depression and conflicted feelings about his attraction to men. McFeely sees the painting Swimming, in particular, as indicative of Eakins's unfulfilled longings, but also of more than that: the image of the artist and five of his male students swimming in the nude embodies Eakins's Thoreauvian conviction that happiness can be found in freedom from society's constraints, in living at one with nature. Eakins never achieved this freedom, however. In 1886, he was asked to resign from the academy, probably because of his homosexuality and his insistence on using nude models in his life drawing classes, and his life became one of increasing despair. The book's most revealing sections discuss Eakins's portraits, where the sitters' faces exude a sadness that reflects the artist's own emotional state. 16 pages of color illus., 40 b&w illus. (Nov.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer paints a portrait of conflicted Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Pulitzer-winning historian McFeely (Proximity to Death, 1999, etc.) offers a sturdy, well-written consideration of the eccentric artist who may or may not have been a homosexual. Haunted and fascinated by the inherent sadness and searing beauty of later works by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), the author delves into the man's psyche to reveal an immensely talented painter tortured by chronic depression and "bedeviled" by ambiguous sexuality-a trait McFeely continuously orbits without ultimately arriving at a definitive answer. He portrays Eakins as an impassioned, "subversive" educator whose unconventional preoccupation with anatomy and photography were only two of the interests that made the administration at Philadelphia's Academy of the Fine Arts rather wary of him. "An unorthodox and brilliant teacher and a wonderfully crazy character who was able to be totally uninhibited with his students," Eakins treated female pupils with respect but had his most intense relationships with the men. He had been teaching for three years when he was commissioned to paint President Rutherford Hayes's portrait, in 1877; he made his first sale of a finished work to Smith College three years later. In 1884, he married Susan Macdowell, one of his prize students. Husband and wife were "truly great friends," states McFeely. "What precisely the nature of their sexual history with each other was, no one can be sure"-though he strongly suggests it was minimal. That same year, Eakins produced Swimming, the provocative, homoerotic masterpiece that played a role in his dismissal from the Academy of the Fine Arts in 1886. His deep depression over being fired was somewhat alleviated by a new friendship with Walt Whitmanthat lasted until the poet's death. Eakins's melancholy in later years was assuaged by sculptor (and another possible love interest) Samuel Murray. The narrative moves along smoothly enough, though the author's obsession with his subject's sex life becomes tedious. The generous amount of illustrations best capture the artist's elusive essence. Agent: Georges Borchardt/Georges Borchardt Inc.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393050653
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
11/20/2006
Pages:
256
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.00(d)

Meet the Author

William S. McFeely is Abraham Baldwin Professor of the Humanities, Emeritus, at the University of Georgia. He is the author of Yankee Stepfather: General O. O. Howard and the Freedmen; Grant: A Biography, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the Parkman Prize; Frederick Douglass, which received the Lincoln Prize; Sapelo’s People: A Long Walk into Freedom; and Proximity to Death.

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