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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Thomas Eakins

Baby at Play, 1876, Thomas Eakins. The artist was not "into" photography when this portrait was painted, though at times, he probably wished for a photo from which to work.
As sometimes happens in writing about so many artists, art movements, art eras, and art content, I sometimes find that I've highlighted an important artist in one of those contexts, but have never actually delved into the life, times, and lifetime work of that individual artist. That turns out to have been the case with one of this country's most important 19th-century painters, Pennsylvania artist, Thomas Eakins of Philadelphia. Inasmuch as I paint exclusively from photos, I have a special affinity for the work of Thomas Eakins. Eakins painted most of his life mostly from live models, but, along with Edouard Manet in Paris, he was also among the first painters, not just in this country, but elsewhere, to embrace photography as a valuable tool in creating his paintings. In fact, inasmuch as he worked mostly outdoors or with natural light he was more successful at integrating photography into his art. Many of the techniques he developed as a painting photographer starting back in the 1880s are still in use today.

Preliminary study for The Swimming Hole. Eakins
used none of the figures here in his final work (below).

Here I have deliberately chosen not to display Eakins' most famous and familiar works. Follow the links provided for a background on the artist. For the most part, Thomas Eakins was not one to use photographs as a preparatory means of composing his paintings, though there are a small number of oils which have direct counterparts in existing photographs. the Amon Carter Museum’s The Swimming Hole (above) is the result of an unsatisfactory first attempt for which Eakins used a single photo. The final version (below) appears to be made up using figures from several different photos or drawings from life. I could find only two source photos contributing to it. The figures are those of his friends and students, and include a self-portrait. The picture's pyramidal composition and sculptural figures are distinctively typical of Eakins style of Realism. The work was painted on commission, but was refused.

The Swimming Hole, ca. 1883-85, Thomas Eakins
Eakins saw a different role for photography, one related to his extraordinary interest in knowing the figure and improving his sensitivity to complex figure-ground relationships. Committed to teaching close observation through the practice of dissection and preparatory wax and plaster sculpture, Eakins introduced the camera to American art. At first his photographs were likely quick studies of pose and gesture. However, during the process of editing the negatives, and then making enlarged platinum prints, he began to see photographs as discrete works of art on paper, at their best on an equal level with his watercolors.

From child prodigy, to art student, to working artist, and
controversial art instructor, Thomas Eakins received the
recognition he richly deserved only after his death in 1916.
Singing a Pathetic Song,
Thomas Eakins
Thomas Eakins was born in 1844 and lived most of his life in Philadelphia. He was the eldest child of Caroline and Benjamin Eakins, a writing master and calligraphy teacher of Scotch-Irish descent. Thomas Eakins observ-ed his father at work and by the age of twelve demonstrated considerable skill in precise line drawing, perspective, and the use of a grid to lay out a careful design--skills he later applied to his art. Eakins studied drawing and anat-omy at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts beginning in 1861, then took courses in anatomy at Jefferson Medical College from 1864-65. For a while, he followed his father's profession as a "writing teacher". His scientific interest in the human body led him to consider becoming a surgeon. Starting in 1866 through 1870, Eakins studied art in Paris with Jean-Léon Gérôme. While studying at L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Eakins seems to have taken little interest in the new Impressionist movement, nor was he impressed by the classical pre-tensions of the French Academy.

A May Morning in the Park, 1879-80, Thomas Eakins
Six months studying in Spain confirmed Eakins' admiration for the realism of artists such as Diego Velasquez and Jusepe de Ribera. Although he failed to graduate and showed no works in the Paris salons, Eakins succeeded in absorbing the techniques and methods of French and Spanish masters, while starting to formulate his artistic vision, which he demonstrated in his first major painting upon returning to America, a large group of eleven rowing scenes, the first and most famous being Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, completed in 1871 (also known as The Champion Single Sculling).

Portrait of Amelia C. Van Buren, 1886-90, Thomas Eakins
Amelia Van Buren with her cat,
photo by Thomas Eakins
In the years that followed, Eakins painted several hundred portraits, usually of friends, family members, or prominent people in the arts, sciences, medicine, and clergy. Taken as a whole, the portraits represent a "who's who" of the intellectual life of Philadelphia in the late 19th and early 20th-centuries. individually, they are incisive depictions of thinking persons. One of his finest is a Portrait of Miss Amelia Van Buren (above). Painted around 1890, she was a personal a friend and former pupil, the portrait suggesting the melancholy of a complex personality, considered by some critics as the finest of all American portraits.

The Artist’s Wife and His Setter
Dog, Ca. 1885, Thomas Eakins
Even Susan Macdowell Eakins, a strong painter and former student who married Eakins in 1884, was not sentimentalized. Despite its richness of color, The Artist's Wife and His Setter Dog (right), painted between 1884 and 1889, is a penetratingly candid portrait. As well, Eakins produced a number of large paintings which brought the portrait out of the drawing room and into the offices, streets, parks, rivers, and arenas, of his city. These active outdoor venues al-lowed 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.

The Wrestlers, 1899, Thomas Eakins
No less important was Eakins' work as a teacher. As an instructor he was a highly influential presence in American art. He taught hundreds of students, among them his wife, Susan, as well as an African-American painter named Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Thomas Anshutz, who in turn taught Robert Henri, George Luks, John Sloan, and Everett Shinn, future members of the Ashcan School, the artistic heirs to Eakins' philosophy. Eakins became a salaried professor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1878, rising to become director in 1882. His teaching methods were controversial: there was no drawing from antique casts, and students received only a short study in charcoal, followed quickly by their introduction to painting, in order to grasp subjects in true color as early in their training as possible. Eakins encouraged his students to use photography as an aid to anatomy and the study of motion. Although there was no specialized vocational instruction, students with aspirations in the applied arts, such as illustration, lithography, and decoration, were as welcome as students interested in becoming portrait artists. The difficulties which beset him as an artist seeking to paint the portrait and figure realistically were reflected and magnified in his career as an educator, where behavioral and sexual scandals truncated his success and damaged his reputation.

Thomas Eakins Carrying a Woman, 1885 photo, the kind
of thing that got him fired from his teaching position. In the
1880s it was acceptable (barely), to paint nudes but quite another matter to photograph them.
Eakins' keen interest fell into the new technologies of motion photography, a field in which he is now seen as an innovator. Although it's not known when or where Eakins learned photography, it is clear that by 1880 he had already incorporated the camera into his professional and personal life. The vast majority of photographs attributed to Eakins are figure studies (nude and clothed) and portraits of his pupil, extended family (including himself), and immediate friends. More than 225 negatives survive at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Approximately 800 images are currently attributed to Eakins and his students, an indication of the intensity with which he and they worked with the camera.

The Dancing Lesson, Thomas Eakins

Cowboy Singing, Thomas Eakins
Eakins was a controversial figure whose work received little by way of official recognition during his lifetime. Late in life Eakins finally began to know some degree of critical acclaim. In 1902 he was made a National Academician. In 1914 the sale of a portrait study of D. Hayes Agnew for the Agnew Clinic to Dr. Albert C. Barnes drew much publicity when it was rumored that the selling price was $50,000. In fact, Barnes bought the painting for just $4,000. Since his death in 1916, Eakins has been celebrated by American art historians as the strongest, most profound realist in 19th and early-20th-century American art. In the years after his death Eakins was honored with a memorial retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with the Pennsylvania Academy following suit in 1917. His wife did much to preserve his reputation, including gifting the Philadelphia Museum of Art with more than fifty of her husband's oil paintings. After her death in 1938, other works were sold off, and eventually another large collection of art and personal material was purchased by Joseph Hirshhorn, and now is part of the Hirshhorn Museum's collection. Since then, Eakins' home in North Philadelphia has been put on the National Register of Historic Places and Eakins Oval, across from the Philadelphia Museum of Art was named for the artist.

The Crucifixion, Thomas Eakins


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