Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) was the most powerful figure painter and portrait painter of his time in America. He was a leading naturalist and one of the era's strongest painters of the current scene.
Thomas Eakins was born on July 25, 1844, in Philadelphia. After his graduation from Central High School, he studied for 5 years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he drew chiefly from casts. To make up for his lack of study of living models, he entered Jefferson Medical College and took the regular courses in anatomy, including dissecting cadavers and observing operations.
In 1866 Eakins left for Paris, where he went through 3 years of rigorous academic training at the École des Beaux-Arts under Jean Léon Gérôme. He also traveled in Italy and Germany. In December 1869 he went to Spain, In Madrid's Prado Museum his discovery of 17th-century Spanish painting, especially the work of Diego Velázquez and Jusepe de Ribera, came as a revelation after the insipidity of the French Salons. After a winter in Seville, Eakins went back to Paris. In July 1870 he returned to Philadelphia, where he would live for the rest of his life, never going abroad again.
Eakins now took for subjects the life of his place and period, Philadelphia of the 1870s; and with uncompromising realism he built his art out of this. His first American paintings were scenes of outdoor life in and around the city—rowing on the Schuylkill River, sailing and fishing on the Delaware River, hunting in the New Jersey marshes— and domestic genre picturing his family and friends in their homes. These works revealed utter honesty, a sure grasp of character, and an unsentimental but deep emotional attachment to his community and its people. From the first, they had the strong construction, the sense of form and of three-dimensional design, and the complete clarity of vision that were to mark Eakins's style thenceforth. The most important work of this period was the Gross Clinic (1875), portraying the great surgeon Samuel D. Gross operating before his students in Jefferson Medical College. The painting shocked the public and critics but established Eakins's reputation as a leader of American naturalism.
Eakins had an unusual combination of artistic and scientific gifts. Anatomy, higher mathematics, and the science of perspective were major interests to him and played an essential part in his painting. As early as 1880, he was using photography as an aid to painting, as a means of studying the body and its actions, and as an independent form of pictorial expression. In 1884 he collaborated with the pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge in photographing the motion of men and animals, but Eakins improved on Muybridge's method of employing a battery of cameras by using a single camera.
Another of Eakins's interests was sculpture. Sometimes he made small models for figures in his paintings, and he produced several full-scale anatomical casts. In the 1880s and early 1890s he executed eight original pieces. All of them were in relief, some in very high relief, almost in the round. Although he did not try to make sculpture his major medium, the strength and skill of his few pieces indicate that he might have achieved results as substantial as in painting.
A natural teacher, in 1876 Eakins began instructing at the Pennsylvania Academy and in 1879 became acting head of the school. Discarding old-fashioned methods, he subordinated drawing from casts to painting from the model, and based instruction on thorough study of the human body, including anatomy courses and dissection— innovations that were to revolutionize art education in America. But his stubborn insistence on the nude, particularly the completely nude male model in lectures on anatomy, scandalized the academy trustees and the more proper women students, and he was forced to resign in 1886. Most of his men students seceded from the academy and started the Art Students' League of Philadelphia, which continued for about 7 years, with Eakins as its unpaid head.
Until his early 40s Eakins had painted varied aspects of contemporary life, outdoors and indoors, as well as many portraits. But the academy affair and the lack of popular success for his paintings (at 36 he had sold only nine pictures for a total of a little over $2,000) probably explain why in the middle 1880s he abandoned his picturing of the broader American scene, except occasionally, and concentrated on portraiture.
In this more restricted field Eakins displayed growing mastery. Those who sat for his portraits were not the wealthy and fashionable, but his friends and students and individuals who attracted him by their qualities of mind—scientists, physicians, fellow artists, musicians, the Catholic clergy. They were pictured without a trace of flattery but with a profound sense of their identity as individuals. Eakin's sure grasp of character, his thorough knowledge of the human body, and his psychological penetration gave his portraits intense vitality. His paintings of women, in contrast to the bodiless idealism of his academic contemporaries, had a flesh-and-blood reality and sense of sex. Eakin's portraiture forms the most mature pictorial record of the American people of his time, equal to John Singleton Copley's record of colonial Americans.
But none of these qualities made for worldly success. Commissions were rare. Usually Eakins asked sitters to pose, then gave them the paintings. Even so, his sitters often did not bother to take their portraits, so that he was left with a studio full of them. After the 1880s he suffered increasing neglect from the academic art world—or actual opposition, as when they refused to exhibit the masterpiece of his mature years, the Agnew Clinic (1889). In spite of this lack of recognition, he continued to work in the same uncompromisingly realistic style, and some of his strongest works were painted during the 1900s. Finally, in old age, he received a small shower of honors.
In 1884 Eakins had married Susan Hannah Macdowell, a former pupil and a gifted painter. They had no children but many students and friends. Fortunately he had a modest income from his father, and they lived in the family home, where he had lived since childhood. It was there that he died on June 25, 1916.
Eakins's work had a vitality, substance, and sculptural form greater than that of any other American painter of his generation. His figure compositions, particularly the relatively few based on the nude or seminude figure, achieved plastic design of a high order. The prudish limitations of his environment, combined with his own intransigent realism, thwarted full expression of his healthy sensuousness and his potentialities in design. But with all these reservations, Eakins's art was a monumental achievement. He was the first major painter of his period to accept completely the realities of contemporary American life and to create out of them a strong and profound art.
Further Reading on Thomas Eakins
The first monograph on Eakins is Lloyd Goodrich, Thomas Eakins: His Life and Work (1933). Margaret McHenry, Thomas Eakins Who Painted (1946), adds personal material about the artist and his sitters and friends. Roland McKinney, Thomas Eakins (1942), and Fairfield Porter, Thomas Eakins (1959), are shorter biographical and critical accounts, with numerous illustrations. Sylvan Schendler, Eakins (1967), is a full-length study of Eakins and his art in relation to American society and culture of his period and includes 158 illustrations.
Additional Biography Sources
Goodrich, Lloyd, Thomas Eakins, Cambridge, Mass.: Published for the National Gallery of Art by Harvard University Press, 1982.
Hendricks, Gordon, The life and work of Thomas Eakins, New York: Grossman Publishers, 1974.
Homer, William Innes, Thomas Eakins: his life and art, New York: Abbeville Press, 1992.