Thomas Eakins: American Realist

by Donald Goddard

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Portrait of Letitia Wilson Jordan, 1888.

Oil on canvas, 60" x 40".

Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

Dick S. Ramsay Fund.

In the spring of 1888, on the day after seeing Letitia Wilson Jordan at a party in Philadelphia, Thomas Eakins apparently told her brother, David Wilson Jordan, a friend and former student, that he wanted to paint her portrait as she had appeared the evening before. And so he did. It wasn't something he was commissioned to do, nor had he been planning for it or thinking about it, though it has been suggested that he might have been competing, however briefly, with fashionable artists like John Singer Sargent, who had recently toured the East Coast, in 1887, as an incredibly well-paid portraitist of wealthy patrons, particularly elegant ladies. Neither was it that Letitia Jordan fulfilled some ideal that Eakins sought to embody or promote. Beauty was essential to him, but only as it emerges, not as something one might seek in graceful contours, brilliant displays of color, and pleasing proportions, or seductive women (which is not to say that sexuality was not part of his regard for women, and men). Almost everything Eakins painted is dramatic. Light comes out of darkness. Action is understood as a suspension of motion. Figures loom in front of us, anticipating some kind of response or movement from us. With the exception of people he knew intimately--his wife Susan, his father-in-law William Macdowell, himself--Eakins' subjects look away, slightly or even craning toward something within the realm of the picture, including what we see within the picture space and what we don't see outside it. Letitia Jordan looks to our right and even seems to advance in that direction, to the right of us, past us, within herself and totally herself. We are also within the realm of the picture, seduced not by Letitia Wilson Jordan or her surroundings but by the artist. He has vectored us in, where he is.

He vectored himself in. In the exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which consisted primarily of photographs and other materials that were held onto by Susan Eakins until her death in 1938 and then passed on to Eakins' student Charles Bregler, there are drawings that plot not only objects and space in the field of view, but also where the viewer should stand to see objects and space correctly. All that can be accounted for is accounted for, including the weather and ripples of water. Every moment, every arrangement involves an infinite number of factors, and Eakins was moved, or rather compelled, to register all of them to define the moment. That is perhaps simply a definition of realism, but Eakins realized that he could not compete with the real world, and that is the source of his tragic vision. He insisted on knowing the world, understanding that it always remained beyond.

I was at first annoyed by the intrusion of photographs in the exhibition at the Pennsylvania Museum of Art--a welter of small sepia rectangles amongst the stately paintings and sculpture. I think Eakins himself would have been furious. But, in fact, they provide an extraordinary context for the art and presence for the artist. More than a thousand photographs have survived. Many were taken by Eakins, many by students and other people associated with him. There are photos of friends and relatives, of landscapes and fishing scenes, and above all of nudes, both men and women, mostly his students. Most of them bear some relationship to his paintings; many, particularly in the 1880s, were traced directly into paintings. The camera, which he began to use in the early '70s, was a godsend, not because it provided him an easy way to replicate a scene, but because it allowed him to extend and confirm the possibilities of his own vision. The lens is an extension of the eye through which three dimensions are converted into two, and therefore useful for painting, as other artists had already discovered in those early days of photography.

Life classes were important, because they revealed the structure of human form and movement. Photographs of nudes were even more important because they were able to record and preserve multiple angles of view. So naked bodies are everywhere, including young men fighting and swimming, young women reclining, Susan Eakins with her horse, and Eakins carrying a young woman. Eakins took some amazing motion-study, stop-action photos of naked young men running, jumping, and pole-vaulting. Though he was accused of lewdness and impropriety, presumably for specific actions in his classes, and was finally forced to resign as director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1886, Eakins' approach, his obsessiveness, was actually profoundly moral. Wanting to know the world--trees, sky, water, bridges, tables, even garments--he wanted to know human form as part of that world. He was not a drudge, but he had to know as much as he could about what he was seeing, thinking, and feeling, as, for instance in his obsession with and dedication to anatomy, human and otherwise.

Mending the Net
, 1881.
Oil on canvas, 32 1/8" x 45 1/8".
Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and
Miss Mary Adeline Williams, 1929.

All the elements of the painting Mending the Net come from photographs taken by Eakins at various places in Gloucester, New Jersey (across the Delaware River from Philadelphia) in April and May of 1881: the tree and capstan; the man sitting under that same tree; the netmender in the middle; two more netmenders; the two children, from a rooftop photo of friends' children (perhaps not in Gloucester); and the flock of geese. The final painting is seamless, as though it had truly and naturally existed in this form. Other paintings are entire scenes transcribed from photographs. This one is composite, though it is hard to say whether he took the photos for the specific purpose of making this painting or he simply chose elements from photos he had taken--probably something of both. It combines different moments of time and space into the same time and space and is one of Eakins' most complex, sensitive, and epic paintings.

The water of the Delaware is prominent in Eakins' other Gloucester paintings. Here it is barely visible, a sliver to the right of the tree. In a sense it is the net itself that holds the picture together, leading through the figures intent on their task of mending to the great tree and the contemplative figure seated beneath it to the water itself. The children watch at the beginning of observing, of learning. The geese gather below as the men above. The scene has an almost heroic quality, the figures silhouetted against the sky, their backs mostly turned, the tree silhouetted, all belonging not to this but to that world, beyond which the sliver of water is an opening. At an extremely precise distance from us, beyond us, Eakins has created an incredible tableau, a tapestry, with which it is impossible not to identify, as perhaps with constellations in a starry sky, the embodiments of life as it is played out.

The Gross Clinic
, 1875.
Oil on canvas, 96" x 78 1/2".
Jefferson Medical College,
Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia.

The Gross Clinic of 1875 is not beyond us. It is of our world and insists on being so. What always strikes me about the painting is the distinctness of the hair of the men in the foreground, and the parts in their hair. Even more distinct are Dr. Gross's crown of grayish-white hair, his formidable face and determined expression. The assistants are there, he is more so, dominating the triangle of figures, wielding the bloody scalpel that has made the incision to remove a dead bone from the young man's thigh. In the amphitheater behind, rows of male students are obscured by darkness. (Eakins himself is one of the observers, on the far right, where he is seeing the scene askance, from the back, as in many of his paintings.) In the lower left, the patient's mother recoils in agony, and above her a young man records the operation, writing down his observations. These elements seem to have been developed after an earlier oil sketch, which doesn't include them. So the painting isn't just a masterful portrait of the doctor presiding over an operation in front of his students. It is that, but has a curiously dissonant symmetry, with Dr. Gross, the mother, and the recorder in the left half and the operation itself, the gangway to the amphitheater (the way out or in), and the shadowy figure of Eakins in the right. We are confronted by the drama of our physicality, our existence, in a complicated series of relationships across space that is reflected in the face and expression of the doctor himself. There are things we will, or must, know about life, whether we mostly view them from the back or not.

"Thomas Eakins was a painter of portraits," Elizabeth Johns wrote at the beginning of her 1983 book on the artist. Just about every painting Eakins made is a portrait, including the boxing scenes of the late 1890s, and less so Mending the Net and other landscapes in which figures are based on photographs. In The Agnew Clinic of 1889, Eakins brought in students and collaborators of Dr. Agnew to sit for every single figure portrayed in the amphitheater (except for the one of the artist himself done by Susan Eakins.) From 1890 until after 1908 almost all of his paintings are portraits as we think of them--full-length, torsos, and heads--sometimes commissioned, but occasionally rejected. Opinions were mixed about Eakins. He was recognized by some as a great artist and rejected by others. Still he was associated, as he always had been, with the most interesting people, with musicians, doctors, scientists, athletes, other artists, and, particularly in his later years, with a number of intellectually accomplished Catholic priests. There is something rather bold and stark about these figures. They insist on themselves and make a great statement, sometimes outrageous like the figure of An Actress (Portrait of Suzanne Santje) of 1903, seated in her long, calamitously red dress.

In these late paintings, Eakins moved indoors completely, into the closed confines of the amphitheater, the boxing arena, the room, the studio, the indeterminate painted background. Some of the portraits, like The Thinker (Portrait of Louis N. Kenton) of 1900 are spare silhouettes against bare walls; others, like Antiquated Music (Portrait of Sarah Sagehorn Frishmuth), also of 1900, are tumultuous concatenations of figure and`objects (here musical instruments). Eakins' last outdoor painting is Cowboys in the Bad Lands of 1888, which he did after a ten-week trip to the Dakota Territory in 1887 following his resignation as director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Appropriately, as a portrait of the western United States, it is the most expansive of his works, and the end of his own exploration in that space. Thereafter he would focus on human beings and their immediate surroundings, not because they were more worthy but because there was too much to know otherwise, and time was beginning to run out. It is not that Eakins was not an outdoor person. He was, in fact, devoted to physical activity throughout his life, to rowing, swimming, bicycling. Though he lived from 1857 on basically in one house in Philadelphia, at 1729 Mount Vernon Street, Eakins traveled quite a bit, to France and Spain for almost four years as an art student (1866-70); throughout Philadelphia and its surroundings; to New York, Baltimore, and Washington to teach; to the Dakota Territory; to Cincinnati and Maine for portrait commissions. But the movement of his soul's attention was inward.

William Rush and His Model
, ca. 1908.
Oil on canvas, 35 1/4" x 47 1/4".
Honolulu Academy of Arts.
Gift of the Friends of the Academy, 1947.

At the end Eakins did something quite amazing. It is not really the end because he did more after William Rush and His Model of about 1908, and he lived until 1916, but this painting is shown very movingly at the end of the exhibition. It is a variation of William Rush Carving his Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River, which Eakins had first done in 1876-77 and then again in 1908. All the background details have been released now, all those drawings and tools and other aspects of Rush's early 19th-century studio that Eakins had so assiduously researched.

Rather than away from us, the nude model now faces us, fully revealed, stepping down from her wooden pedestal on the hand of the sculptor, who faces away rather than forward. In front of him is a carved ornament from a ship (Rush did such work), but that is all. It is a simple and honest homage to the artist, the model, and to the act of painting, the latent ether of brushstrokes from which both model and artist emerge.

by Donald Goddard © 2001

The exhibition was organized and appeared at the Philadelphia Museum of Art , and traveled to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, and then to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York .

Concurrent exhibitions in Philadelphia included "Process on Paper: Drawings from Charles Bregler's Thomas Eakins Collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts," shown at that institution from ; "Susan Macdowell Eakins (1851-1938)" at the Woodmere Art Museum; and "Thomas Eakins and His Fellow Artists at the Philadelphia Sketch Club," at that institution 2001.

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