Saturday Art: Thomas Eakins
In the early 20th century, Thomas Eakins took the course of realism and produced a body of work that represents the life of that era in the U.S. He was an educator and painter who drew subjects from everyday life in his large body of productive work.
For the length of his professional career, from the early 1870s until his health began to fail some 40 years later, Eakins worked exactingly from life, choosing as his subject the people of his hometown ofPhiladelphia. He painted several hundred portraits, usually of friends, family members, or prominent people in the arts, sciences, medicine, and clergy. Taken en masse, the portraits offer an overview of the intellectual life of Philadelphia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; individually, they are incisive depictions of thinking persons.
In addition, Eakins produced a number of large paintings which brought the portrait out of the drawing room and into the offices, streets, parks, rivers, arenas, and surgical amphitheaters of his city. These active outdoor venues allowed him to paint the subject which most inspired him: the nude or lightly clad figure in motion. In the process he could model the forms of the body in full sunlight, and create images of deep space utilizing his studies in perspective. Eakins also took a keen interest in the new technologies of motion photography, a field in which he is now seen as an innovator.
No less important in Eakins’ life was his work as a teacher. As an instructor he was a highly influential presence in American art. The difficulties which beset him as an artist seeking to paint the portrait and figure realistically were paralleled and even amplified in his career as an educator, where behavioral and sexual scandals truncated his success and damaged his reputation.
Eakins was a controversial figure whose work received little by way of official recognition during his lifetime. Since his death, he has been celebrated by American art historians as “the strongest, most profound realist in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American art”.
The line between impartiality and questionable behavior was a thin one. When a female student, Amelia Van Buren, asked about the movement of the pelvis, Eakins invited her to his studio, where he undressed and “gave her the explanation as I could not have done by words only”. Such incidents, coupled with the ambitions of his younger associates to oust him and take over the school themselves, created tensions between him and the Academy’s board of directors. He was ultimately forced to resign in 1886, for removing the loincloth of a male model in a class where female students were present.
The dismissal was a major setback for Eakins. His family was split, with his in-laws siding against him in public dispute. He struggled to protect his name against rumors and false charges, had bouts of ill health, and suffered a humiliation which he felt for the rest of his life. Eakins’ popularity amongst the students was such that a number of them broke with the Academy and formed the Art Students’ League of Philadelphia(1886-1893), where Eakins subsequently instructed.
Eakins portraits show us our recent past in great measure, with a subdued and impressive depth. His insistence on the representation of actual and real subjects gave him difficulties, but was his great strength.
(Picture below courtesy of Darren and Brad at flickr.com.)
(Picture below courtesy of Miguel Drake-McLaughlin at flickr.com.)