"Not a painter, but a force, " declared poet Walt Whitman of Thomas Eakins. Born in Philadelphia in 1844, Eakins lived and worked in Philadelphia his entire life, apart from four years of study in Europe. The city inspired many of his greatest works, from his early paintings of oarsmen on the Schuylkill River to his now famous portraits of the city's leading surgeons. A gifted teacher, Eakins taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for roughly a decade, transforming it into the most advanced art school in the nation.
This is the first painting Eakins ever exhibited. It was made just a year after he returned from three years of traditional academic training with artist Jean-Léon Gérôme at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In a triumph of academic technique, each figure is meticulously painted and accurately proportioned. But in this painting and throughout the rest of his 40-year career, Eakins diverged from the historical figures or exotic settings preferred by many academic artists. Instead, Eakins depicted people and subjects drawn from his own experiences in his native city of Philadelphia.
John Biglin and his younger brother Barney row in tandem along the Schuylkill River one summer afternoon just before sunset. The faces of these professional oarsmen are plunged in deep shadow. What little daylight remains, bounces off the surface of the water near the leading oar as they glide gracefully past a heavy stone pier. Pair oaring is the most difficult kind of rowing because each man has only one oar and has to constantly maintain the balance of the boat.
Eakins constructed his compositions with painstaking care. Eakins made a number of meticulous perspective drawings for this picture. The painting that resulted is so accurate, scholars were able to determine the precise length of the boat and to pinpoint the exact time of day to 7:20 p.m. Eakins actually wrote an entire textbook on the subject of linear perspective, though it was never published. His well-known command of perspective was matched by a less known, but equally rigorous quest to record natural light faithfully.
Look closely at the sailboat in the center of this picture. Three sailors lean out of it to counteract the tilt of the boat in the strong breeze. Notice the crispness of the boat's features. It is well known that Eakins took photographs as studies for many of his paintings. This helps explain the remarkable precision he achieved in depicting objects constantly in motion, like these boats on the Delaware River. But when conservators at the Philadelphia Museum recently examined his paintings, they discovered that Eakins actually projected photographs directly onto canvases. In this painting, the center boat and far right boat were painted using projections. Compare the precision of their rendering to the other boats on the river. Occasionally Eakins projected images to trace the outline of a complicated form. More often, though, as in this painting, Eakins created microscopic reference points from the projections.
In the center of this large, dramatic canvas stands Dr. Samuel Gross--one of Philadelphia's most respected surgeons. Dr. Gross is shown here in a teaching clinic at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. He pauses for a moment during surgery to instruct his students. His right hand holds a scalpel and is covered in fresh blood. Bright light draws our attention to his commanding face, and to the operating table beside him. There lies a young patient, still wearing his gray socks. Blood spills from his thigh as other physicians help Dr. Gross perform a sophisticated operation to treat a rare bone disease. Eakins himself observes the event--you can just make him out in the audience on the far right, taking notes.
Eakins hoped this impressive painting would establish his reputation as an artist. He submitted it to be included in the important 1876 Centennial exhibition held in Philadelphia to celebrate America's first 100 years. Many critics and viewers responded, however, with disgust--reacting like the patient's mother, seated on the left side of the painting, shielding her eyes from the gruesome scene. The Centennial Art jury rejected the painting, though they accepted several others by Eakins. The Gross Clinic was ultimately hung in the medical section of the exhibition, far from the art galleries where it belonged. Several years later, many still objected to the painting--a New York Times critic described it as "revolting to the last degree." Today, however, The Gross Clinic is widely recognized as one of the greatest achievements of American art.
Although he married in 1884, Eakins never had children of his own. He was especially close to his numerous nieces and nephews as a result. This painting shows Eakins's young niece, Ella Crowell, carefully assembles building blocks. But this unsentimental portrait is not a showcase for the importance of familial bonds. Eakins underscores the picture's more serious nature by making the canvas large but also by his manipulation of light. Instead of brightly illuminating his niece's sweet features, Eakins casts her face in deep shadow and gives her a serious, focused expression. She is oblivious to the artist, absorbed by the quiet pleasures of learning and discovery.
On the left side of this painting, William Rush, an early 19th century American sculptor, chips away at a wood statue in his studio. Eakins greatly admired this Philadelphia artist, who began his career as a carver of ship figureheads. In the lower left corner, you can see an example of one of his ship carvings. Eakins made a wider range of studies for this painting of William Rush than any of his other works. But in spite of his scrupulous attention to detail, Eakins altered one major fact. In Rush's sculpture the woman is clothed. The young woman posing in Eakins painting, however, is clearly nude—the beautifully painted pile of clothes draped over a nearby chair underscores this fact. In Eakins' day, a female relative often served as a chaperone to any young woman who posed nude. The elderly woman seated in the Chippendale chair served as this model's chaperone. In the early 19th century, however, when Rush made his sculpture, it would have been extremely unlikely for any American artist to use an actual nude female model. Why did Eakins distort the facts? One answer may be that he had just begun teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. At the Academy, Eakins placed great emphasis on drawing nude models to study the human form. So here Eakins alters history a bit to support his own interests.
A bright red parasol provides shade for a May morning coach ride through Philadelphia's Fairmount Park. Fairman Rogers, a prominent Philadelphian, directs his coach, led by his prize mare, Josephine. Rogers was a wealthy, forward thinking man--one of the first in Philadelphia to own a four-in-hand coach. He was also an important champion of Eakins. He commissioned this painting from the artist, paying Eakins a sum that far surpassed anything he had previously received. And as a member of the Pennsylvania Academy's Committee of Instruction, Rogers was partly responsible for Eakins's appointment as a full-time professor in 1879--the year Eakins made this painting. Notice how each of the horses' legs is different. Eakins modeled their positions after groundbreaking photographs of horses in motion made by British photographer Eadweard Muybridge.
Eakins and his students cast this torso from a cadaver in order to study the human body. The original was made of plaster in 1880 and only later cast in the bronze you see here. By 1880, Eakins had transformed the Pennsylvania Academy into the most progressive art school in the nation. His curriculum emphasized the study of the human body more rigorously and thoroughly than any other art school in America or abroad. Before his tenure, the Academy offered occasional lectures on anatomy. Eakins made anatomy mandatory and held classes two evenings a week. And in an unprecedented and controversial move, he offered dissection to advanced pupils. In these classes, students dissected human and animal cadavers to create plaster casts of body parts, such as the torso we see here. A journalist at the time declared: "Exhaustive is a faint word by which to characterize such instruction." Not surprisingly, conservative parents, critics, and members of the Academy's board expressed concern about the direction in which Eakins was taking the school.
Two Crowell Children, Margaret Eakins, and Frances Crowell on a Rooftop; Two Men Under the Tree; Geese at Gloucester, New Jersey
In this painting, a man reads under a tree as fisherman quietly go about their task of mending nets on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. Eakins appears to have captured a single moment in an ordinary day. In reality, though, this painting was constructed from details captured in more than 30 photographs taken over several days and in different places.
The fishermen on the hill were drawn from various candid shots, combined to appear as a seamless group. The man sitting under the tree reading a newspaper is posed. Also posed are the two young children. They were Eakins' nieces--photographed back on the roof of the artist's home on Mt. Vernon Street in Philadelphia. Nearby you can see two of the eighteen or more photographs Eakins took of geese. Even the long shutter speeds of cameras at the time, Eakins must have spent a good part of a day chasing geese in order to get so many pictures.
The identity of this African American man is a complete mystery. Eakins featured blacks in many of his works. Emancipated black slaves also served as models for his hunting and fishing pictures. Where other artists might have enforced stereotypes, in all of his works, Eakins depicted African Americans with dignity. Here, the sitter reflects Eakins approach to portraiture. Dressed in casual garments, the sitter projects neither material success nor social accomplishment, but rather an inner psychology. Though his identity is unknown, his quiet, self-assured expression provided one of Eakins’s richest portraits with a camera.
In this photograph, Eakins has dissected a second or two of time, breaking down the fleeting motion of a single pole-vault into nine equal intervals. Eakins made this photograph and other motion studies in the summer of 1885, inspired by the work of British photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge had gained a worldwide reputation for photographs of horses in motion, made possible by shutter speeds that were astonishingly fast for the time. Acknowledging the importance of these photographs, the University of Pennsylvania invited Muybridge to continue his studies in Philadelphia. Eakins was immediately appointed as one of the supervisors to the project. Eakins was excited by Muybridge's area of study but quickly recognized its deficiencies. Muybridge had frozen motion, but not at regular intervals. His photographs lacked scientific precision. Eakins pointed out this problem to his colleague, but without results. So in the summer of 1885 he devised his own experiments, to produce instructive and measurable photographs like this one. Photography provided Eakins with yet another way to better understand and render the human body in his art.
Eakins began this affectionate portrait of Walt Whitman in 1887, shortly after the two became friends. Following his dismissal from the Academy in 1886, Eakins began to concentrate on portraiture. To paint this tribute to his ailing friend, Eakins took the ferry across the Delaware River to visit Whitman in his home in Camden, New Jersey. When Whitman saw the painting, he described it as "not at first a pleasant version to me but the more I get to realize it, the profounder seems its insight." Whitman later described it in a letter as "a portrait of power and realism…A poor, old, blind, despised and dying king." He hailed Eakins as one of the few artists "who could resist the temptation to see what they thought ought to be, rather than what is."
Whitman shared Eakins's unapologetic interest in the human body. In Leaves of Grass, Whitman declared, "I sing the Body Electric. If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred." They also shared a close friendship--Eakins frequently visited Whitman in Camden during the last few years of the poet's life. When Whitman died in 1892, Eakins served as an honorary pallbearer at the funeral. As a final tribute to their friendship, Eakins made casts of his friend's face, shoulders, and right hand.
This landscape was inspired by a ten-week trip Eakins made to the Dakota Badlands in the summer of 1887. The cowboys are loosely modeled after photographs Eakins took in the Badlands. The horses are purchases from his trip. When he returned, the artist photographed and sketched them at his sister's farm in Avondale, Pennsylvania. Eakins went to the Badlands to recover from a devastating blow in his career, his dismissal from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in February of 1886. The trip to the Badlands restored his energy and spirits. The poet Walt Whitman, who met Eakins shortly before his trip, described Eakins as "run down and out of sorts" when he left, but "built up miraculously" upon his return. Eakins's affection for the western landscape and his reflective experience comes through in this quiet painting.
This painting was one of the few commissions Eakins ever received. He was asked to paint the distinguished surgeon, Dr. David Hayes Agnew, on the eve of his retirement from teaching at the University of Pennsylvania's Medical School. Dr. Agnew's students raised the 750 dollars Eakins was paid for the picture. Most artists would have only painted Dr. Agnew, as the initial commission was intended to be, but Eakins was much more ambitious. He depicts Dr. Agnew guiding the mastectomy of a young woman with breast cancer. And he convinced the surgeon's students to pose for the work. By depicting Dr. Agnew while teaching, Eakins once again underscores his deep conviction in learning. As he did in the Gross Clinic, Eakins includes himself as an onlooker. His wife, Susan, actually painted him in the lower right hand corner, listening as a doctor whispers into his ear. The University of Pennsylvania features an image of this painting on every medical student's diploma.
Eakins's first full-length portrait of a woman presents the singer Weda Cook. Her chin is raised so she can project her voice; her mouth open, in mid-song. Of the nearly two dozen works of art Eakins devoted to the subject of music, this is his most ambitious treatment of the theme. Weda Cook posed for this picture off and on for nearly two years. At the beginning of each session, Eakins asked her to sing a portion of Mendelssohn's oratorio, Elijah, which begins "O rest in the Lord." If you look down, you can see that Eakins also carved the opening bars of this song into the frame. Eakins was so committed to accuracy that he asked a well-known Philadelphia conductor to pose holding the baton. But he also takes small liberties with reality by inserting a bouquet of pink roses on the stage. Flowers are ordinarily presented at the end of a concert, but here they lie on the stage as a permanent reminder of the public's recognition of the singer's talents.
Eakins invited one of the nation's most gifted and controversial anthropologists to pose for this large, full-length portrait. Frank Hamilton Cushing was a famous expert on Zuni culture. He studied the Native American tribe during an expedition to New Mexico sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. The trip was supposed to have lasted two months, but Cushing stayed nearly five years. In an unorthodox move that brought him great notoriety, Cushing lived with the Zunis. He became so accepted that the tribe appointed him an honorary chief.
Cushing posed for this portrait in Eakins's studio. Eakins depicts the anthropologist in an eclectic costume that Cushing assembled from a variety of sources after joining the tribe. Behind him to the left is a spear propped against the wall next to his Zuni shield. In the lower right-hand corner, a Zuni bowl rests on the edge of a small altar. The setting is a kiva, an chamber excavated underground where the Zunis conducted ritual ceremonies. Though Cushing is surrounded by artifacts from his greatest experience, his years out west eventually took a toll on his health. He died 5 years after posing for this portrait, at the age of 42. In the end, Cushing's career bore a remarkable similarity to Eakins's: both were recognized for their talents but heavily criticized during their lifetimes for their unorthodox ways.
A man in pince-nez glasses bows his head in contemplation. His hands are stuffed into the pockets of his loose fitting black suit. A gold watch chain dangles through a buttonhole in his coat. The starched, bright white collar draws our attention to his face, with its grave expression. With its minimal background, this spare painting offers no clues as to the man's identity. We are confronted instead by a universal image--the dignity and psychological intensity of a man, alone in his thoughts.
The painting's subject is in fact Susan Eakins's brother-in-law, Louis N. Kenton, a working class man whose father was a flour and grain salesman. Kenton is represented with a powerful, understated presence, making this one of Eakins's most expressive portraits. Eakins must have felt it one of his best works because it was among the works he displayed most frequently. Many critics voiced their admiration as well and after 1900, Eakins began to enjoy a better reputation.
In 1902, Eakins painted this self-portrait after being unanimously elected to the nation's most prestigious art organization--the National Academy of Design. As the final prerequisite of membership, every artist was required to submit a self-portrait.
Look at how Eakins chose to depict himself. According to a preliminary sketch, he initially showed himself in a turtleneck sweater but ultimately opted for this more professional-looking black coat and tie. But he doesn't hide his well-known disregard for outward appearances. His mustache is uneven and his hair disheveled.