The Revenge of Thomas Eakins

The Revenge of Thomas Eakins

by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick

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Thomas Eakins was misunderstood in life, his brilliant work earned little acclaim, and hidden demons tortured and drove him. Yet the portraits he painted more than a century ago captivate us today, and he is now widely acclaimed as the finest portrait painter our nation has ever produced. This book recounts the artist’s life in fascinating detail, drawing on


Thomas Eakins was misunderstood in life, his brilliant work earned little acclaim, and hidden demons tortured and drove him. Yet the portraits he painted more than a century ago captivate us today, and he is now widely acclaimed as the finest portrait painter our nation has ever produced. This book recounts the artist’s life in fascinating detail, drawing on a treasure trove of Eakins family correspondence and papers that have only recently been discovered.
Never before has Thomas Eakins’s story been told with such drama, clarity, and accuracy. Sidney Kirkpatrick sets the painter’s life and art in the wider context of the changing world he devoted himself to portraying, and he also addresses the artist’s private life—the contradictory impulses, obsessions, and possible psychological illness that fired his work. Kirkpatrick underscores Eakins’s unflinching integrity as an artist and discloses how his profound appreciation of the beauty of the human form was both the source of his greatness and ultimately of his undoing. Nevertheless, the author observes, Eakins has had his “revenge,” inspiring a new generation of realist painters and gaining the recognition that eluded him in life.

Editorial Reviews

Digby Diehl

"Sidney Kirkpatrick's masterful and thoroughly compelling biography of Thomas Eakins is rich with fresh insights and new understandings of an artist who may well be America's finest. Eakins is illuminated in these pages as a man dedicated to his artistic vision despite the myopia of the Victorian era from which he emerged. Kirkpatrick reveals Eakins as brave and lonely, wise and fallible, daring yet focused—not only a majestic figure of his time, but for all time."—Digby Diehl

Edward J. Renehan Jr.

"Riveting and eloquent—the definitive Eakins biography for this generation. Kirkpatrick reveals the artist in all his brilliant diversity. Here we have the uncompromising master who pioneered American realism, and paid the price for offending the sensibilities of his fickle generation."—Edward J. Renehan Jr., author of Dark Genius of Wall Street

Linda Kay Zoeckler

"Kirkpatrick heartily serves the reader a rich broth of artistic, historical, and scientific ideas in Eakins's Philadelphia. Astutely illuminates the creative circumstances behind Eakins's masterpieces. Fresh and rewarding."—Linda Kay Zoeckler, former Head, Huntington Art Reference Library

Martin Berger

"A novel biography of one of America's most important nineteenth-century artists. Kirkpatrick recreates Eakins's world, fleshing out the cultural and physical context that makes that life understandable to twenty-first century readers. Not content to retell either the familiar narrative of the artist as the beleaguered, innocent victim of prudish Philadelphia or as the disturbed and self-destructive provocateur, Kirkpatrick presents a driven and sympathetic artist who possessed tragic flaws."—Martin Berger, University of California at Santa Cruz

Peter Nelson

"The strongest and most poignant work on Eakins, replete with surprises, that shows why Eakins has less in common with Sargent, who satisfied socialite portrait clients, and more with Rembrandt and da Vinci, who removed veils from the outer and inner lives of centuries past and far into the future."—Peter Nelson, Art Center College of Design

Ronald C. White

"Kirkpatrick is a historical detective who unravels the mesmerizing story of the rise, fall, and revenge of Thomas Eakins. He writes in an artful, absorbing style; you will not be able to put down this gripping biography."—Ronald C. White, Jr., author of The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words

New York Sun - Carl Rollyson

"Mr. Kirkpatrick is relentless in … investing his subject with a pathos and grandeur that only the finest biographies attain."—Carl Rollyson, New York Sun

Philadelphia Weekly - Roberta Fallon

“Kirkpatrick brings Eakins to life as a breathing, sweating, prickly and fascinating man, one a wide audience will appreciate. . . ”—Roberta Fallon, Philadelphia Weekly

John Loughery
The last decade has brought us to a saturation point in publications about Eakins. It is time to go back to the pictures, to let the interpretive dust settle for a while. Kirkpatrick's book encourages this, though the integrity and purity of motive he attributes to his subject -- haunted by more personal demons than we realized -- are not likely to be the last word any longer.
— The Washinhgton Post
Library Journal
Born in Philadelphia, artist Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) studied in Paris with Jean-Leon Gerome. As the United States was swinging toward Impressionism, Eakins's exact and rigorous paintings of sculling on the Schuylkill River were praised for their drawing, but not considered art. His masterpiece, The Gross Clinic, depicting an operation in progress, caused an uproar and was roundly denounced. Eakins remained dedicated to life drawing, but controversy continued to dog him. Sitters refused their portraits or destroyed them, unhappy with his brand of unrelenting realism. In this book, award-winning filmmaker and best-selling author Kirkpatrick (A Cast of Killers) tells the story of Eakins's turbulent career with dramatic flair. The artist's titular revenge alludes to the reverence placed on his work today. The book features 42 color plates and 50 black-and-white illustrations, as well as a period map of Philadelphia showing Eakins's home and many haunts. Although the Philadelphia Museum of Art's 2001 catalog of Eakins's work is more complete, this is an important biography of a man whose steadfast dedication to his ideals would still be considered controversial today. For all libraries.-Ilene Skeen, Hunter Coll., New York Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Henry McBride Series in Modernism and Modernity
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.63(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Revenge of THOMAS EAKINS


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 Sidney D. Kirkpatrick
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-10855-9

Chapter One

Twenty-year-old Thomas Eakins enrolled in a class of aspiring surgeons at Philadelphia's Jefferson Medical College in 1864. How committed he was to pursuing a career as a medical specialist is a matter of scholarly debate. All that can be said with certainty is that he had the intellect and temperament to have distinguished himself in the field. Fearlessness, devotion, discipline, and an informed mind-the very character traits most sought in a Pennsylvania opening room in the mid-nineteenth century-were qualities the young Eakins possessed in no small measure. He was endowed with an enormous appetite for knowledge, an abiding passion for human physiology, a clinician's trained eye for detail, and hands as adept with a scalpel as they would one day become with a paintbrush.

That Eakins soon chose to dedicate his formidable talent to the fine arts and not to medical science resulted from the considerable influence of his father, a distinguished instructor of penmanship at the Friends Central School. "Master Benjamin," as he was known throughout the city, had guided the unsteady hands of two generations of young Philadelphians. The son of an Irish handloom weaver from Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, he had arrived in Philadelphia in the early 1840s, marriedCaroline Cowperthwait, the daughter of a New Jersey cobbler, and gone on to establish a well-deserved reputation for kindness, stern morality, and absolute integrity. He was beloved by all who knew him, and no more than by Thomas, the family's eldest child and only surviving son, born in the summer of 1844.

The effect Benjamin Eakins had on his son's future art career can most tangibly be measured in dollars and cents. Never a rich man by Philadelphia's high standards, the senior Eakins, by thrift and diligence, provided a lifestyle for his family far beyond the expectations of his immigrant parents. For fifty-one years he earned a steady and reasonably good salary as a high-school teacher, which he supplemented through private tutoring in penmanship and by elaborately inscribing diplomas, deeds, invitations, marriage licenses, and testimonials. A savvy investor, Benjamin bought real estate, government securities, and railroad bonds, eventually accumulating eight income-producing rental properties and an estate that would be valued today in excess of $2 million.

These prudent investments and his own shrewd skill in managing them provided financial security during his lifetime and supported his family after his death. The money made it possible for young Thomas Eakins to study in Paris, and it later provided him the luxury of not having to earn a living from his art. Eakins could choose his own portrait subjects and paint them when and how he pleased, without feeling beholden to anyone but his father. Nor did he ever have to court favor or compromise his exacting standards. "If you knew old Benjamin Eakins," one family friend declared, "you wouldn't give Thomas Eakins any credit."

Income such as that produced by the senior Eakins was made possible by Philadelphia's booming economy. Despite the city's rampant political corruption-reputed to be the longest sustained and most entrenched of any city in our nation's history-Philadelphia had successfully made the transition from being the breadbasket of the young republic to the nation's first modern industrialized city. In population and wealth, through the middle of the nineteenth century, it ranked behind only London, Paris, and New York. Three-quarters of Philadelphia's income flowed from manufacturing, mining, transportation, banking, and railroads. Factories, operating from dawn until dusk, driven by high-grade Pennsylvania anthracite coal, absorbed tens of thousands of unskilled immigrants. Five hundred or more ships a year arrived at the city's docks on the Delaware River, hauling such diverse cargoes as tobacco from the Carolinas, spermaceti from New England, coffee from Brazil, toys from Germany, and mahogany from Nicaraguan forests. Armies of factory workers in hobnailed boots trudged to work each morning through the cobblestone streets, steam-driven cranes and conveyor belts unloaded flatcars and coal hoppers at the freight yards, and soot-blackened tugs, whistles blaring, jostled for space at the quayside.

Although New York had eclipsed Philadelphia as the nation's economic powerhouse and arbiter of popular culture, Philadelphia maintained its preeminent status in building the largest steam engines, educating the most physicians, publishing more books than elsewhere, and establishing the country's first bank, city waterworks, public library, botanical garden, museum, and art school. Philadelphia also preserved its cultural identity in significant ways that other cities did not. More than forty sculpted artworks graced Fairmount Park, along with dedicated hiking trails, bridle paths, playgrounds, dog runs, and other recreational facilities. City directories listed four hundred churches and eight hundred fraternal societies, political clubs, scholarly associations, and institutions of philanthropy; far greater in number and better attended than would ever be the case in New York or Boston.

Political and social egalitarianism in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin was so firmly rooted in Philadelphia that no other city offered its lower-income and middle-class citizens such a diversity of opportunities for education, leisure pursuits, and occupations. Two of Philadelphia's wealthiest businessmen had once beets butchers. A third had launched his career selling bolts of cloth door to door. The city's public schools, considered the best in the nation, were defiantly practical, turning out leaders in medicine, science, and the applied arts. "I would have them taught facts and things, rather than words and [abstract theories]," proclaimed Stephen Girard on the occasion of his founding Girard College for orphans in 1831-a gift that was, at the time, the single greatest act of private philanthropy in the nation's history: Philadelphia was uniquely rich with cultural diversity as well as economic opportunity. To a man like Benjamin Eakins, the son of an immigrant craftsman, with no known formal education, the city could offer the chance to achieve a standard of living that made a Paris education for his son, or a Pennsylvania medical degree, not just a dream but a reality within his grasp.

Benjamin Eakins' business skills and his role in expanding the family's fortune made up only one aspect of his more enduring legacy. His most distinguishing character trait could be described as an enlightened and mature sense of himself and the community he lived within. Honesty, simplicity, and directness were values he cultivated in himself and instilled in his children. Benjamin Eakins' courtly and even-handed manner endeared him to graduates of Friends Central School. The respect fellow Philadelphians felt for him is evident in his decades-long relationships with such institutions as the University of Pennsylvania, which retained him twice a year to inscribe its diplomas. He had none of the smug inertia associated with the genteel class of Philadelphians whose diplomas he inscribed, or the tendency toward social climbing that was characteristic of the city's tradesmen. His wardrobe contained no ceremonial scimitars or embroidered robes.

Rather, Benjamin possessed a keen, often dry and self-deprecating sense of humor, flavored with a decidedly Irish anti-republican distrust of politicians, clerics, and the hugely popular fraternal associations with which the vast majority of Philadelphians of his generation identified themselves. "A staunch Democrat in a Republican City ... [and] always neatly dressed, with a fresh collar," was how one neighbor described him. Benjamin didn't take himself as seriously as others took him, nor could he easily be fooled. His free time was invariably spent with his closest friends and immediate family, either at home over a game of chess in his parlor or outdoors, where he liked to hike, fish, hunt, ice skate, and sail. Family always came first.

Tom inherited his father's intelligence and industrious nature, as he did his short stature, round head, and heavy eyebrows, his high cheekbones and long upper lip. A childhood photograph of Eakins reflects his father's anatomical features and his alert and penetrating gaze. Tom's petulant smile-hinting a bit of mischievousness or insubordination-is what differentiates him most from his father. The difference may be a portent of things to come or could reflect merely a stage of the child's development: when Tom's photos were taken he had become a brother and was no longer the center of family attention. Frances, known as Fanny, came along in 1848, followed in 1850 by Benjamin Jr., who died before he was a year old; Margaret, or Maggie, was born in 1853, and Caroline, called Caddy, arrived in 1865, while Tom was attending Jefferson Medical College and studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Tom Eakins' russet complexion, suggestive of an Italian or Spanish coloring, his thick lips and dark hair, also evident in childhood photos, belong to his mother, Caroline Cowperthwait. A midcentury daguerreotype, from which Tom would later paint her portrait, shows her dark brown eyes, chestnut-colored hair, and high cheekbones. Caroline wears a black taffeta dress and tight high collar, indicating a woman in mourning; the photo may have been taken in 1851, the year Tom's younger brother died. Typical of the severe styles of the day, her shoulder-length hair has been parted in the middle and drawn smoothly hack and knotted from behind.

Like many important details of Eakins' childhood and young adult years, little is known about his mother or the influence she had on her son. His family correspondence provides only brief references to her, and not a single story about her has been passed down by her children or friends. In contrast to the long, richly detailed, and highly personal letters Tom later wrote from Paris to his father, whom he affectionately addressed as "Poppy," the infrequent letters to his mother are businesslike and impersonal, mostly detailing his expenses. The notable exceptions appear to have been observations about popular Parisian dress and hairstyles-perhaps unusual for a son, but not for one as curious and observant as Thomas.

The photographic record on its face, showing young Tom outfitted for several childhood pictures in a neatly pressed black dress fitted with a row of bright buttons and a ruffled white lace collar, suggests that his mother, at the very least, must have been a significant presence in the Eakins household. References to her engaged in needlepoint and embroidery indicate that her son may have inherited his manual dexterity from her as well as from his father. Thomas was named after one of Caroline's nine older siblings, an uncle whose gold pocket watch he later inherited. Caroline's brother Emmor Cowperthwait was a frequent visitor in the Eakins home, and her sister Eliza and their mother, Margaret, lived with the family for many years.

Although Caroline had been raised in the Quaker faith, her husband Benjamin taught in a Quaker school, and several of the family's closest friends were prominent members of Quaker congregations in a city where Quakerism was the dominant religion, no evidence reveals that after their marriage the couple, or their children, attended church services. The flew clues that do exist shed little light on what may have been her religious beliefs, beyond a brief reference in family correspondence: as a teenager, she and an older sister needed to resort to subterfuge to hide their colorful dresses and bonnets from their maternal grandfather, who believed such finery to be unseemly. (Another sister was permitted to wear a pink bow on her bonnet on the condition that the bow was turned away from her father when the family sat in Quaker meeting.)

Master Benjamin's forebears were Presbyterians. Despite his and Caroline's turning away from their earlier religion, the young couple clearly incorporated Quaker values in their household. By word and by example Tom and his three sisters were taught simplicity of speech and dress, sobriety, and self-discipline. Qualities the family cherished-a hatred of hypocrisy and pretension and a stubborn adherence to truth and honesty in the face of opposition-were also kindred to Quaker beliefs. Yet another Quaker-inspired rule Caroline and Benjamin likely practiced was silence at mealtimes. They were not altogether successful. Family friends reported that no sooner did the Eakins elders leave the dining table than the "merriment [among the children] would begin."

Although religion may not have been practiced formally in the Eakins family, it was respected. One of the few reprimands that young Tom was known to have received followed his teasing a second cousin, Sallie Shaw, for attending church and Sunday school. Master Benjamin reportedly "lit into Tom," and lectured him "so that he never did that again."

Benjamin's views on religious respect and tolerance were not necessarily shared by his neighbors, or for that matter by Tom during his formative years. The City of Brotherly Love, the Quakers' name for Philadelphia, became for Catholics the "City of Turmoil." Mobs of nativists, fearful of the growing population of Irish Catholic immigrants, routinely attacked Catholic residences and clergymen. In 1844, the year Tom was born, nativists burned the combined St. Augustine's Church, monastery, and school to the ground. The state dispatched a militia to protect St. Philip Neri's Church; fifty people died and sixty suffered serious injury there during an ensuing riot. St. Charles Seminary, a theological center that later figured prominently in Eakins' art career, had to be relocated to Overbrook, outside city limits, for safety.

Presumably Caroline shared her husband's views on religion and other subjects. How she met Benjamin has not been discovered. It is highly conceivable that she took private penmanship lessons from him in 1843, when her future husband first began advertising for clients from a studio on Sargent Street, only a few blocks removed from the Cowperthwait house, on Carrollton Square. It was in the Cowperthwait home-overlooking a chemical manufacturing plant and industrial park where the young couple spent their first years of married life, where Thomas was born, and where; in 1850, his younger brother Benjamin Jr. died five months after his birth. Nothing is known of the circumstances surrounding the child's death or how his passing may have affected the family. Likely his death was caused by an epidemic of yellow fever and cholera that ravaged Philadelphia that year, killing one of every five children in the city. The child's grave is marked by an angel kneeling on a pedestal in the Eakins family plot at Woodlands Cemetery, overlooking the Schuylkill River.

Tom entered grammar school in 1853 at age nine, the year after his family moved from the Cowperthwait home into an upwardly mobile neighborhood of recently built townhouses in the 1200 block of Green Street. Their second residence, although an improvement over the Cowperthwait quarters on Carrollton Square, was adjacent to a lumberyard and near a cluster of jerry-built dwellings at which pigs and other livestock were frequently tethered. Three years later, after Tom's sister Margaret was born, the family moved to the 500 block of Green Street, and in 1857, when he was twelve, into a spacious three-story townhouse on a double lot at what is now 1729 Mount Vernon Street.

Tom was of an age to have appreciated his family's rapidly improving net worth. Their new home was only four years old, raised by a bricklayer in a recently developed upper-middle-class neighborhood populated by families of merchants, lawyers, clerks, an undertaker, a photographer, and a book publisher. Typical of the recently constructed Philadelphia homes at the time, it was made of kiln-fired red pressed brick, enhanced by wide white marble steps and solid wooden shutters. Rather than purchasing the house and renting the land it was built on-a common practice in Philadelphia-Benjamin bought both at a sheriff's auction for the price of $4,800.


Excerpted from The Revenge of THOMAS EAKINS by SIDNEY D. KIRKPATRICK Copyright © 2006 by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Sidney D. Kirkpatrick is a critically acclaimed author and award-winning documentary film producer. His most recent book is Edgar Cayce, An American Prophet.

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