Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art

Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art

by William Innes Homer

Hardcover(Second Edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780789207746
Publisher: Abbeville Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/28/2002
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 276
Product dimensions: 11.32(w) x 13.16(h) x 1.34(d)

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Defiant, inflexible, and self-righteous are words not commonly used to describe Thomas Eakins. They do, however, accurately define aspects of the personality of this great American artist, whose ambitious drive toward his own vision of perfection left him disillusioned and alienated. Although time has idealized the man, his paintings remain a constant truth, portraying the American people and their world with remarkable fidelity and sympathy.

When functioning at his highest level Eakins was a superb artist, ranking with the best American painters of his time, painters such as Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. He shared their immense ability to capture the human image, to place it within a convincing space and make it seem tangible in its reality, while avoiding mere painterly pyrotechnics. His profound knowledge of the human head and body provided a foundation for his unusual skill in penetrating surface appearances to reveal the psychological traits of the subjects who posed for him. His best portraits are extraordinary not only because he mastered the conceptual and technical skills needed to make inert paint and canvas come alive but also because he discovered the personal traits most worthy of recording.

In his devotion to American subjects, Eakins seems to have responded to Walt Whitman's challenge to portray life in the United States rather than worn-out European myths and allegories. His genre paintings—especially of hunting, sailing, and rowing scenes—reflect his pleasure in these commonplace sports while also elevating them to a higher, more universal plane. The pictorial language he used was not particularly original, yet it differed fromwhat he had been taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts; it was also allied to but separate from the American genre tradition of George Caleb Bingham, Homer, Eastman Johnson, William Sidney Mount, and others. His work resembles theirs in subject as well, but more than any of them he derived his visual information directly from nature, just as the realists had done in France.

Eakins pursued his goals in art and life with unswerving determination. Not only did he work diligently to become an accomplished painter himself, but he also forcefully imposed his credo on his students in an effort to make them good artists. For some of them this was the right approach, but for others his teaching seemed far too limited, confined to the appearance and mechanics of the nude human body and little else.

For Eakins the nude was a crossroad where all of his ideas intersected. His passion for the unclothed human body can be traced to Whitman, who hailed the joys of unembarrassed nakedness. For Eakins, as for Whitman, the undressed figure was a talisman of freedom, a symbol of intellectual and sexual liberty and of resistance to narrow-minded prudery. Eakins's experiences in Paris reinforced this view, for the French, especially within the high-spirited art community, were far less puritanical than the Americans back home. It was in Paris that he absorbed the ideas of the sixteenth-century monk turned physician and satirist, François Rabelais, whose motto Do What You Want guided the American painter for the rest of his life.

Eakins's approach to the nude encapsulated the various tenets of modernity as it was understood in the 1860s and 1870s. The nude was not a transcendent image, nor was it symbolic in the traditional sense: it was a marvel of nature, the superb end product of centuries of evolution. To see and study the body in this way, Eakins had to invoke all the authority of science, drawing endless analogies between medicine and art. Yet he seems also to have seen the human form as a carrier of vital energy, an organism whose biological force excited him and carried sexual implications as well.

Caring far less about his public reputation than about his freedom to paint as he pleased, Eakins tenaciously upheld his principles, no matter what the cost. His candor regarding the nude led to his expulsion from his teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, prevented him from continuing his beneficial influence in art education, tarnished his personal reputation, and exiled him from the social and art-political circles in Philadelphia where he could have exerted considerable leadership. His uninhibited, often vulgar speech made him seem a boor, and his stubborn, self-righteous behavior made him an outcast. (Of course, it is not necessary to be a pleasant person to be an effective artist.) It is as though he thoroughly enjoyed offending the commercial aristocracy and the philistines who appreciated neither his ideas nor his art.

Eakins himself placed little importance on his own biography, saying, "For the public I believe my life is all in my work." But in order to evaluate the contribution of this complex and rewarding artist, one must scrutinize both his life and his art. To that end, I have used the latest available information—published and unpublished—to write the most comprehensive account possible. I have examined Eakins's family, his personality, his professional and personal relationships; his theories, his prejudices, and his responses to earlier and to contemporary art; and the strengths and weaknesses of his own painting and sculpture. I have tried to view Eakins in the context of his culture (especially the materialistic, scientific ethos of his day), to say something about his attitudes toward women as well as to his male friends, and to probe his psychological makeup.

In the course of my research I was able to examine materials that had never before been accessible. They offered fresh and often startling insights about the role of intellect in Eakins's art and teaching, about his relation to his contemporaries, about the dark and obsessive side of his sexuality. The most important new source—sequestered in the home of the widow of Eakins's student Charles Bregler until 1985, when it was purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy—is a collection of paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, personal documents, and letters by and to Eakins. Susan Macdowell Eakins (the artist's widow), who had originally owned most of the material, had shown only portions of it to the American art historian Lloyd Goodrich, withholding documents that showed Eakins's behavior—especially toward women—in a bad light. Bregler had shared some of the collection with Eakins's biographer Margaret McHenry, but except for her, Goodrich, and a few others who glimpsed fragments of these materials, it remained an unknown treasure. Besides the letters, the collection includes invaluable ephemera and sketches from the artist's youth; perspective drawings and oil studies for various works; and memorabilia such as his paint boxes, palette, and brushes.

Other new sources have become available within the last few years. The papers of the late Gordon Hendricks, given to the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, include an enormous amount of biographical and historical data not fully mined by Hendricks in his own publications on Eakins. There is also the Eakins Archive bequeathed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Lloyd Goodrich. It includes, among other things, notes on his interviews with Mrs. Eakins and with many of the artist's students and friends; Goodrich's copies of Eakins's letters, lent to him by Mrs. Eakins (the originals of which, in some cases, are now lost); a copy of Eakins's own cumulative record of his paintings; Goodrich's unfinished draft catalog of the artist's life work; and many photographs of Eakins's paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Goodrich's small pencil sketches made in the early 1930s, when he was going through the many unsold paintings still in Mrs. Eakins's possession, provide the only visual records of certain lost works.

I also learned a great deal from the late Seymour Adelman, a Philadelphia attorney and bibliophile, who befriended Eakins's widow in the 1930s. Adelman, who loved the work of Eakins, absorbed much information about the artist from his chats with Mrs. Eakins. During my visits to the Eakins house on Mount Vernon Street—which Adelman had purchased and donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art as an Eakins memorial and a community art center—he would walk from room to room, sharing with me his memories of Mrs. Eakins and the house in the 1930s. One other resource, also connected to Adelman, is the collection he sold to Mr. and Mrs. Daniel W. Dietrich II in order to buy the Eakins house. The collection—still to be fully explored—includes paintings and oil sketches, small sculptures, drawings, photographs by and of Eakins, letters, journals, and memorabilia.

The availability of this rich vein of material gave me an opportunity to challenge existing views of Eakins, to abandon the hero worship that has dominated so much of the writing about him. Eakins was not the near-perfect human being portrayed by his admirers: he was domineering, obsessive, egotistical, and filled with sexual conflicts. That he was a great painter cannot be denied, but not all of his works are equally good, and they must be evaluated with a critical eye. My intent has been to capture the essence of the man with the same penetrating spirit that he used to portray his own subjects—honestly and without idealization.

Table of Contents

1. Beginnings
2. Paris and Spain
3. Philadelphia
4. In Search of Patrons and Independence
5. Eakins as Theorist
6. Eakins as Teacher
7. Scandal
8. The Cowboys and the Poet
9. Late Work and Belated Honors
Appendix: Eakins and the Photographic Image
Selected Bibliography
Bibliographic Addendum
Photography Credits and Acknowledgments

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