Artist Thomas Eakins was considered a controversial "eccentric" who disregarded Victorian ideals of propriety. Today, he is remembered as a pioneer of American Realism and for his development of photographic techniques.
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On June 25, 1844, Thomas Eakins was born in Philadelphia, PA to Caroline Cowperthwait and Benjamin Eakins. In July of 1861, the 16-year-old Eakins graduated from Central High School in Philadelphia with a degree equivalent to a Bachelor of Arts. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, the education-oriented Eakins chose not to enlist. Instead, he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA) where he took drawing classes and sketched antique casts alongside his classmates.
While a student at the PAFA, Eakins also took courses at Jefferson Medical College to gain a scientific understanding of the human form. There, he witnessed dissections of human cadavers and familiarized himself with the basics of anatomy. For the next three years, he continued his studies in draftsmanship and the human form. However, he still had no training with the handling of color and painting applications. Realizing his own disadvantage and determined to become a proficient artist, Eakins set off for Paris in 1866.
On October 29, 1866, he began his study at the Academié des Beaux-Arts, with acclaimed French artist Jean Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) as his instructor. Following his intense study in France, Eakins ventured west to Spain, where he arrived in Madrid on December 1, 1869. Once in the capital, he frequented the Prado Museum regularly and viewed the work of 17-century Spanish masters, Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652) and Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), for the first time.
After traveling through Spain, Germany and Italy, he returned to Philadelphia in 1870 and opened a studio on Mount Vernon Street. In the following year, he debuted his painting Max Schmitt in a Single Scull at the annual exhibition of the PAFA. Capturing the average American in his leisure time, it was the foremost painting of its kind and sparked a long tradition of swimming and boating scenes in American art.
In 1875, Thomas Eakins took on another subject matter that was never rendered on canvas before. In the painting The Gross Clinic, the famed Pennsylvanian surgeon, Dr. Samuel D. Gross is shown performing a surgery on a patient in an amphitheater of Jefferson Medical College. When Eakins submitted it to the art jury of the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, it was immediately rejected. Its detailed depiction of a surgery in progress, replete with bloody scalpel and exposed limbs, reportedly stirred nausea into many of the jury members. After some reconsideration, the jury finally decided to place the work in the Exhibition’s medical pavilion. Two years later, the painting was eventually purchased by Jefferson Medical College for the paltry amount of $200.
While the painting failed to please the general public, it did, however, succeed in impressing a handful of critics, including a young artist, Susan Hannah Macdowell. Impressed by Eakins’ talent, the young Macdowell immediately enrolled in one of his classes at the PAFA. Eight years later, the two married in 1884.
Following the display of The Gross Clinic, Eakins became a sort of controversial "eccentric" of the Philadelphia art world who disregarded Victorian ideals of propriety. Nevertheless, no one could argue against his innate talent and skill in illustrating the human form. In the fall of 1879, he was appointed professor of drawing and painting at the PAFA. Shortly after, he was elected director of the PAFA.
In 1886, the PAFA board of directors ultimately fired Eakins from his teaching position after a scandal surfaced. A string of information revealed that Eakins had pressured students to model in the nude, displayed a fully undressed nude male to a group of female students, and even undressed himself in front of his pupils. In addition to his troubles at the PAFA, his brother-in-law, Frank Stephens, prompted more allegations by accusing him of incest. While the accusations of incest were never proved, the charge itself was enough to have Eakins removed from a Philadelphia art club.
Though the Philadelphia art world alienated Eakins, a group of 38 of his students left the PAFA in protest. Soon after, they founded the Art Students League of Philadelphia with Eakins as their director. With no board of directors or an art jury to answer to, Eakins continued to teach the importance of drawing from the live-nude model. Distressed over the previous year and in much need of rest, Eakins left for a summer long retreat to a ranch in South Dakota.
Following his return in the fall of 1887, Eakins made a pilgrimage to the poet Walt Whitman’s residence in Camden, NJ. The two men found much in common with each other. Many of Eakins paintings reflect Whitmanesque sentiments, such as the abandonment to sensuality and nature as seen in the painting The Swimming Hole. A few weeks later, Eakins returned to the poet’s home to paint an impromptu portrait; the aging Whitman later praised it as his favorite.
With a renewed sense of accomplishment, Eakins returned to Philadelphia. In 1889, he accepted a commission from a group of medical students to paint a portrait of their instructor Dr. David H. Agnew. Despite the failure of his first portrait of a surgeon, Eakins bravely took on the commission and continued to follow the same formula of painting the surgeon in an operating theater as he had done in The Gross Clinic. When the painting was exhibited at a Philadelphia gallery, it immediately came under attack by critics and was rejected by the Annual Exhibition of the PAFA.
In 1892, another devastating event shook Eakins when the Arts Students League of Philadelphia was forced to disband due to a lack of funds. In a move to improve his source of income, Eakins began to focus on portraiture. However, considering his past failures to please critics in Philadelphia, Eakins failed to earn a strong clientele.
Nevertheless, a fortunate turn of events occurred in the late 1890s when Eakins received much recognition outside of Philadelphia for his talent. In 1893, he won the Gold medal at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In 1902, he was named a full academician of the National Academy of Design in New York. Nonetheless, despite national success, Eakins was unable to earn recognition in his hometown of Philadelphia.
In 1910, the artist underwent another life changing event when his eyesight and health began to fail. It is well believed that Eakins’ debilitating illness was brought on by formaldehyde poisoning. At that time, the chemical was used as a preservative in milk, and Eakins was widely known to have consumed the beverage regularly. He spent his last days with artist friend Samuel Murray, and at one o’clock in the afternoon on June 25 of 1916, he passed away.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
“I never knew of but one artist, and that’s Tom Eakins, who could resist the temptation to see what they think ought to be rather than what is.”
When Victorian society prized propriety and prudery in an individual, Thomas Eakins was rebellious, tenacious and ill mannered. When sensuality and sexuality were considered to be better off repressed, Eakins encouraged the nude model to pose in the classroom, for the canvas, and in front of the camera. As a result, he had difficulty in finding patrons. Over a hundred years later, Eakins continues to shock his audience; only this time it is the poignant realism of his work that is the cause.
Eakins’ obsession with the nude dates back to his school years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA). As a first year student, the young artist quickly learned that the majority of his time would be spent sketching from the school’s collection of antique casts. Realizing the limitations of sculpture, Eakins simultaneously enrolled in anatomy classes at a local medical college. There, he studied every muscle and every tendon of the human body.
Eakins’ belief in the importance of anatomy translated over to his canvases and photographs. In both The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic, the artist makes well use of his knowledge gained from the medical field. In the former, he bluntly illustrates an exposed thigh, and in the latter, an exposed breast. While only a handful of his paintings contain a nude, hundreds of his photographs are devoted to the subject. As early as the 1870s, Eakins became interested in Eadweard Muybridge’s experiments in photographic motion studies that were taking place in California. Eakins himself completed several of his own studies based on Muybridge’s photographic techniques. Which largely involved the use of nude male models.
In his years as an instructor, Eakins believed that studying from the live nude model was the only method suitable for the education of a young artist. He wrote, “I don’t like a long study of casts… the beginner can at the very outset see more from the living model in a given time than from the study of the antique in twice that period.” Defying Victorian morals, Eakins adhered to this belief, even though it cost him his job and reputation time and again.
It was only at the time of his death that Eakins finally received the recognition he deserved as an artist. In 1917, both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the PAFA put on a memorial retrospective for the influential artist. Through his paintings and photographs, he left an indefinable mark on American art. He was the first to introduce the completely nude model into the hallowed halls of America’s greatest art school; the first to paint American boating and swimming scenes; the first to paint baseball games and boxing matches; and the first American painter to openly study photographic techniques. What singled Eakins out as a rebellious artist in his own time has now become the norm for many artists of today.
1844 Thomas Eakins is born on July 25 in Philadelphia, PA
1862 Commences studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA)
1864 Attends anatomy demonstrations at Jefferson Medical College
1866 Travels from New York to Paris. Enters Jean-Léon Gérome's atelier
1867 Attends the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and travels to Europe for the next three years
1870 Returns to Philadelphia and opens a studio on Mount Vernon Street
1871 First exhibition of his work takes place at the Union League of Philadelphia
1873 Takes an anatomy course at Jefferson Medical College
1874 First sale of his work takes place. Becomes engaged to Kathrin Crowell.
1875 Paints The Gross Clinic
1878 PAFA hires him as assistant professor of painting and anatomy. Learns of Edward Muybridge’s photography experiments
1879 Appointed professor of drawing and painting at the PAFA. Kathrin Crowell dies.
1880 Presents first lectures on perspective at the PAFA. Elected to the Society of American Artists
1881 Begins teaching anatomy at the Art Students’ Guild, Brooklyn Art Association
1882 Elected director of the Pennsylvania Academy schools
1883 Displays a camera design at the Photographic Society of Philadelphia
1884 Marries Susan Hannah Macdowell. Appointed to Muybridge commission at the University of Pennsylvania
1885 Begins teaching at the Art Students’ League in New York
1886 Requested by the board of the PAFA to resign as director
1887 Makes first of many visits to poet Walt Whitman
1889 The Agnew Clinic is completed
1891 Teaches at the Women’s Art School of the Cooper Union in New York
1892 Resigns from the Society of American Artists upon the third rejection of his works
1893 Wins Medal at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, IL
1895 Dismissed from the Drexel Institute for using a completely nude male model in a lecture to a coed audience
1896 First and only one-man show takes place in Philadelphia
1898 Retires from teaching career
1899 Serves as a juror for the Carnegie Institute International Exhibition
1902 Elected an Academician of the National Academy of Design
1910 Eyesight begins to fail. Paints his last major portraits.
1914 The Agnew Clinic is shown at the PAFA and is purchased for $4,000
1916 The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) purchases Pushing for Rail for $800. Dies on June 25 in Philadelphia.
1917 Both the MET and the PAFA open a memorial retrospective
Addison Gallery of American Art, MA
- Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, NY
- Art Institute of Chicago, IL
- Butler Institute of American Art, OH
- Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY
- Cincinnati Art Museum, OH
- Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
- Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
- Currier Gallery of Art, NH
- Detroit Institute of Arts, MI
- Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA
- Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK
- Harvard University Art Museums, MA
- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
- Hyde Collection Art Museum, NY
- Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, NY
- Joslyn Art Museum, NE
- J. Paul Getty Museum, CA
- Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
- Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
- Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN
- Montclair Art Museum, NJ
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
- Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
- National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
- National Academy of Design, NY
- North Carolina Museum of Art, NC
- Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
- Philadelphia Museum of Art , PA
- San Diego Museum of Art, CA
- Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA
- Sheldon Art Gallery, Lincoln, NE
- Smith College Museum of Art, MA
- Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
- Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame, IN
- Southern Alleghenies Museum, PA
- Terra Foundation for the Arts, IL
- The Eakins Gallery at Thomas Jefferson University, PA
- The Mitchell Museum and Cedarhurst Sculpture Park, IL
- The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
- Worcester Art Museum, MA
- Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
V. EXHIBITIONS (Selected List)
1875, 1890 Paris Salon, France
1876-1917, 1969, 1994, 1997 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, PA
1877-96, 1905 National Academy of Design, NY
1878, 1881, 1883 Brooklyn Art Association, NY
1878-1891 Boston Art Club, MA
1893 Columbian Exposition, Chicago, IL
1930, 1935 Museum of Modern Art, NY
1944 M. Knoedler and Co., NY
1907 American Art Society, PA
1907 Carnegie Institute, PA
1907-1914, 1969 Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
1970 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
1989 Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, MD
1901 Pan American Exposition, Buffalo, NY
1904 St. Louis Exposition, MO
1992 Babbcock Gallery, NY
1993 National Portrait Gallery, London
1996 Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX
2001 Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
2002 Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
National Academy of Design
Society of American Artists
1893 Medal, Columbian Exposition, Chicago, IL
1900 Honorable Mention, Paris Salon, France
1901 Gold Medal, Pan American Exposition, Buffalo, NY
1904 Gold Medal, St. Louis Exposition, MO
1904 Temple Gold Medal, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, PA
1905 Proctor Prize, National Academy of Design, NY
1907 Prize, Carnegie Institute, PA
1907 Gold Medal, American Art Society, PA
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- 2. Esten, John. Thomas Eakins: The Absolute Male. New York: Universe Publishing, 2002.
- 3. Falk, Peter Hastings ed. Who Was Who in American Art: 1564-1975. Vol. I. Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1999.
- 4. Homer, William Innes. Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1992.
- 5. Hoopes, Donelson F. Eakins: Watercolors. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1985.
- 6. Schendler, Sylvan. Eakins. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967.