Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life

Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life

by Elizabeth Johns

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Why did Thomas Eakins, now considered the foremost American painter of the nineteenth century, make portraiture his main field in an era when other major artists disdained such a choice? With a rich discussion of the cultural and vocational context of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Elizabeth Johns answers this question.

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Why did Thomas Eakins, now considered the foremost American painter of the nineteenth century, make portraiture his main field in an era when other major artists disdained such a choice? With a rich discussion of the cultural and vocational context of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Elizabeth Johns answers this question.

Editorial Reviews

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"The publication of Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life by Elizabeth Johns is an event of some importance, for I believe that this is one of the best studies ever written about an American painter. . . . [The main] chapters function as studies of individual pictures, but they are woven with such great skill that they reflect on nearly all of Eakins's major works and they deal with many of the important issues about him. They also teach us more about Eakins's subjects and his era than one would have thought either necessary or possible."--Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., The New York Times Book Review

"[This volume] will doubtless increase still further the current popularity of the Eakins's work. . . . It draws out the depth and intensity of meaning and feeling from Eakins's paintings. . . . For many decades no book so thoughtfully considered, so beautifully crafted, and so accurate and illuminating in its conclusions has been written in the American field."--Henry Adams, The Art Bulletin

"To accomplish her goal of explaining Eakins's use of portraiture to affirm the heroic possibilities of life in the American nineteenth century, Johns moves with confidence across a remarkable range of subjects. Her erudite bibliographic essay reviews the principal literature in fields as diverse as sports history, the history of medicine in both Europe and America, American cultural history, the tradition of the portrait, music in the nineteenth century, and the scholarship of American art in general and of Eakins in particular. . . . Johns has here placed Eakins securely in the company of the greatest interpreters of his age."--Mark Pachter, Reviews in American History

"Professor Elizabeth Johns's book is an exemplary study of [Eakins] and an example of the best art historical writing currently being produced. . . . In creating a portrait in writing of Eakins as a hero, Professor Johns thus takes upon herself his heroic mantle."--Katharine Martinez, Art Documentation

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Princeton University Press
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Thomas Eakins

The Heroism of Modern Life

By Elizabeth Johns


Copyright © 1983 Elizabeth Johns
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-2025-2


Eakins, Modern Life, and the Portrait

THOMAS EAKINS was a painter of portraits. Financially independent, he followed a drumbeat from 1870 to 1910 that guided virtually no other contemporary major artist, either of America or of Europe. Some of these artists concentrated on landscapes or urban and domestic genre, others on still life and visionary scenes. Those most well known today turned their back on traditional painting techniques. In manner as well as in subject, they contributed to a deepening suspicion that art existed quite separate from the events and issues of contemporary life. Artists who painted portraits during these decades—and there were indeed quite a few of them—typically did so on commission or in moments when they were relaxing from their primary artistic work. Eakins, on the other hand, was passionately devoted to the portrait. For him, the human being was central to art—but not just any man or woman with an interesting face; rather he sought the person who in his full intellectual, aesthetic, and athletic power was definitive of the best of his times. In choosing his sitters, Eakins consistently paid tribute to such persons and to their achievements. In these choices, he drew on, explored, and celebrated cultural ideals prominent among his fellow citizens in the larger world beyond art.

That world during Eakins' lifetime was one of astounding change. The revolutions affecting it had begun early, some of them before the turn of the nineteenth century. Political egalitarianism had altered social structures, extending rights and giving new expectations to large masses of people; industrialization and material progress had brought citizens new occupations and an unparalleled number of leisure activities and comforts; educational opportunities had created an increasingly literate population and opened most of the professions to aspiring members of the middle and even of the lower classes; scientific investigation had expanded knowledge and almost wholly altered men's perception of the material world; traditional religious belief had declined, and indeed, in many instances, had died. Acutely aware of these changes, cultural spokesmen from as early as 1840 used the term "modern" almost obsessively to define the character of their times. After 1870, when Eakins began painting, the changes so accelerated that to many observers, institutions and leaders alike seemed to be breaking off from all steadying connections with the past. More than one spokesman suggested that increasing mechanization would cause man to lose his central place in his own world.

In response to this growing sense of dislocation, a major cultural interpretation gained currency about the time Eakins was born. This was the hope expressed by such figures as Charles Baudelaire in France, Thomas Carlyle in England, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in America (Figures 3,4, 5) that the traditional ideal of heroism could be translated into terms applicable to "modern" life. Heroism had always been a powerful concept. Before the mid-eighteenth century it had been an aristocratic ideal, associated, if not exclusively with the class itself, at least with the virtues and attainments traditionally cultivated there: nobility and courage of spirit, educated and supple intellect, moral purposefulness. Rare in tangible manifestation, heroism was an ideal of grace and selflessness that seemed to be absolutely essential to a community's continuity. During the middle and late eighteenth century, a rising group of middle-class intellectuals and scientists across Europe and in America—Voltaire, Samuel Johnson, and Benjamin Franklin, among others—had shown by example that heroic virtues could be cultivated within a variety of social positions. Their achievements demonstrated to optimistic nineteenth-century successors that heroic action came from traits of character that most men, with the encouragement of the new democratic times, had the potential to develop: the exercise of reason, firm standards of morality, and admirable self-discipline.

Although Baudelaire, Carlyle, and Emerson gave public voice to the conviction, they had serious reservations that the ideal was definable, much less achievable. The terms of community and individual experience since the late eighteenth century had changed too drastically. Baudelaire concluded his first exhibition review of the Paris Salon in 1845 with the plea that artists paint "the heroism of modern life," but in his own turbulent career, pursued through turbulent times, he was never fully sure in what precisely—in a materialistic, egalitarian culture—heroism might inhere. Carlyle, addressing a larger audience, traced the evolution of cultural heroes from early religious figures through political figures to recent intellectual figures, simultaneously considering and doubting whether the average man of the nineteenth century, the heir apparent to that evolution, could cultivate even the semblance of heroic virtues. Unwilling, and perhaps even unable, to identify heroism with a specific creed or action, Carlyle finally located it in the imagination, defining it as the hero's ability to see beneath appearances to the essential. Across the Atlantic, Emerson saw heroism as an act of resistance rather than affirmation. Perhaps the least comfortable of the three men with the materiality of modern life, he held up for emulation the spiritual strength with which modern man could pit himself against the external world. For each of these men, the task of the artist was crucial. Carlyle put it best: the artist "could not sing the Heroic warrior, unless he himself were at least a Heroic warrior too."

The doubts of Baudelaire, Carlyle, and Emerson were unusual in their times, and did not find echoes in less prescient spokesmen until late in the century. Most citizens on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1830s and 1840s, benefiting from the sweeping growth of educational, professional, and social opportunities, had every confidence that the eighteenth-century terms of heroism could be grafted to modern life. Their optimism became an article of faith that dominated popular and professional literature. Leaders in the new professional fields, men in commerce and industry, educators, and publishers of the vastly expanding number of periodicals and newspapers urged that men could cultivate heroism in every role—that of the physician, the writer, the pianist, the banker, the factory owner, even the athlete. Their creed had several tenets. These modern heroes would be "scientific," undertaking their work on the basis of principles developed through direct observation and experimentation; they would be "egalitarian," investigating without prejudice all phenomena, activities, and people; they would be "progressive," acutely sensitive to change, and demonstrating their awareness of it by knowing the history of their pursuit. And finally, they would be "doers." They would transform the old hierarchies, in which a man's worth was determined by his class, with the egalitarian standard of performance.

These confident articles of faith guided Eakins' sitters in their achievements. And just as the ideology with which they pursued their careers was a synthesis of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century currents—of faith in reason and discipline, and commitment to egalitarian opportunity—so was the character of the form with which Eakins honored them, the portrait.

Throughout history rarely simply a likeness, the portrait early in its life had come to have a public or community function in conveying the sitter's position and accomplishments. Whether with the insignia and trappings of monarchical power, or religious authority, or scholarly integrity complementing the image of the sitter, the portrait affirmed and strengthened the values by which the community was ordered. Even portraits apparently private (like the great self-portraits of Rembrandt, for instance) that explored the psychological dimensions of a sitter in a simple bust format grew from and reinforced a commitment in the artist's culture to spiritual integrity.

Concurrent with the development of the ideal of intellectual and scientific heroism in the mid-eighteenth century, artists had begun to apply the large-scale and lavish iconography of earlier monarchical and aristocratic portraiture to portraits of the new men of the Enlightenment. Inspired to do so at least partially by their strong interest in history painting, for which there was spare patronage, artists applied the intellectual underpinnings of that tradition to the portrait. Ambitious men like Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough in England, Jacques Louis David in France, and Charles Willson Peale in America painted rich tributes to the great thinkers, writers, musicians, scientists, and statesmen of their era (Figures 6, 7, 8, 9). Prominently featuring the attributes that revealed the specific direction of the sitter's intellect and discipline—a cello, for instance, or medical instruments, or scholarly texts—these heroic portraits celebrated the faith in reason, discipline, and morality that guided not only the lives of the sitters, but the strivings of the larger community. They transcended likeness to reveal the intellectual aura of the age—an aura created not by episodic or singular events in history, but by the ongoing heroic careers of individual thinkers and doers.

As the nineteenth century saw the rise of self-made and widely admired men in all disciplines of activity who optimistically aspired to the moral discipline of their predecessors, a host of portrait painters arose to document and honor their achievements. Although few are so remembered today as Reynolds, Gainsborough, David, and Peale, they drew on the conventions so important in the work of these earlier giants to provide portrait images demanded by the new times—by the heroes themselves, by their professional institutions, and by public collections. In response to the new awareness of man's role within his environment, rather than apart from it, many portraitists came to prefer the environmental portrait, or portrait d'apparat, which located the sitter in the environment of his professional activity—actually at work in his laboratory, for instance, rather than simply posing at his desk. The variation also reflected the new materialism of the times, the conviction that man was yet another creature in nature, anchored to a particular time and place from which he acted. Although in the artists' own repertory, landscape and urban scenes took on major importance, in commissioned work of all kinds—in more "public" work—the portrait was of dominant importance.

In the prolific expansion in the nineteenth century of the technology with which multiple images were made the portrait took center stage as a subject. Potential sitters were legion, as were interested audiences. With the development of the lithograph, entrepreneurs found a ready market for images of leaders in the new professions, in banking, in community and national life, even in athletics, and sold these images both as individual prints and in bound collections with accompanying texts. Often the prints were designed to appeal to a community or regional audience, with specific details of the environment in which the sitter was represented: a famous concert hall, a well-loved city view, a river or park. Biographies, both of new and of rediscovered heroes, grew in popularity, and portrait prints accompanied their appearance in periodicals. After the introduction of photography in 1839, the portrait photograph became prominent. It was fast, inexpensive, and, near the end of the century, easily reproduced in books and periodicals.

The portrait kept its place in popular public life for subtle reasons as well as the more apparent. On the one hand it was obvious that man was working wondrous changes in the rapid expansion of technology, of educational opportunities, of scientific and medical development, and in the arts. The heroes who had directed such progress deserved recognition. But it was also true that under the public celebration of modernity was an anxiety that individual man counted for less and less in the grand design. A portrait image, even a bust, of a prominent surgeon, banker, violinist, or athlete enforced the passionate hope that in an egalitarian society all men could reach prominence; and it also quieted the fear that man, with his imagination, intelligence, and discipline, would lose his place in the apparently relentness evolution of natural and man-made forces.

Extraordinarily sensitive to these tensions, Eakins explored their implications in a city that in 1870 had an admirable number of professionals working at various endeavors. These new men moved in public life with the self-confidence that flourishes in a small environment. By 1825 Philadelphia had lost its earlier political, intellectual, and financial lead in American life, and even in 1870, although the city had grown tremendously in population, it maintained its earlier spirit of smallness. Before Eakins began his career the city had enjoyed a fine tradition in portraiture. In fact no landscape movement comparable to that in New York had ever developed among Philadelphia artists; although in the 1860s there was a rising interest in genre painting and a certain amount of landscape painting, throughout the century portraiture had generally dominated the practice and exhibition of painting in the city. Most prominent in this tradition were Charles Willson Peale (Figure 9), Thomas Sully (Figure 10), and John Neagle (Figure 11), who painted a number of portraits of the city's prominent scientists, medical men, merchants, clergy, and artists. Several of these were on a grand scale; many were displayed in the institutional collections with which Philadelphians had celebrated their prominent members. Portraiture in Philadelphia flourished in printmaking, too, which from 1830 had been a major industry in Philadelphia. Over the century ambitious printmakers published a host of individual portrait prints and a number of notable print collections of portraits and biographies of eminent citizens. Finally, Philadelphia was a center of portrait photography, with major portrait studios established as early as 1839.

Although Peale and Sully did not always find that the painting of portraits matched their intellectual ambitions—Peale, in fact, often pursued with more vigor the gathering and interpreting of natural history material for his museum—Eakins, by reason of intellectual curiosity, of temperament, and of singular responsiveness to major urgings in his culture, pursued the portrait as his life work.

His education and study show him to have been led in that direction very early. He was born in 1844, in Philadelphia, to Benjamin and Caroline Eakins, the progeny of Scotch-Irish, English, and Dutch forbears who had come to Philadelphia early in the century. Benjamin Eakins was a writing master, an expert in ornamental script who embellished documents and certificates and who taught the script to young students. In his work, characterized by an attentiveness to detail and a fondness for delicate beauty, Benjamin Eakins moved easily among both new and old Philadelphia families, a man of high principles and stern morality but, according to reminiscences, unfailingly kind. After Thomas, the Eakinses had three daughters, Frances, Margaret, and Caroline. They taught the children to enjoy music, literature and languages, art, and sports—rowing, sailing, and skating especially—and instilled in them a disdain of affectation and a proper respect for morals and proprieties.


Excerpted from Thomas Eakins by Elizabeth Johns. Copyright © 1983 Elizabeth Johns. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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