Robert Hull Fleming Museum



 

Process on Paper: Drawings by Thomas Eakins from the Charles Bregler Collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

February 11 - June 3, 2001

 

Although Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) never intended his drawings for display, his talents in this discipline were recognized and esteemed by art lovers in his day. On February 9, 1878, New York Daily Tribune art critic Clarence Cook praised Thomas Eakins' draughtsmanship in paintings exhibited with the American Watercolor Society:

drawing here does all that it can ever do. . .Other charms may be wanting, . . . but here is life, and when an artist has this he has all.

Today, Eakins' drawings are elegant reminders of the importance of this medium in the art of America's most celebrated nineteenth-century portrait painter. Fleming Museum is proud to bring Eakins' work to the state for the first time. Curated by Amy Werbel, Associate Professor of Fine Arts at St. Michael's College, this exhibition was organized from the Charles Bregler Collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.(right: Thomas Eakins, Figure Study: Masked Nude Woman, c. 1875-85, Oil on cardboard, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Charles Bregler's Thomas Eakins Collection Purchased with the partial support of the Pew Memorial Trust and the John S. Phillips Fund, 1985.68.38.4)

As the son of a Philadelphia calligrapher, Thomas Eakins acquired exquisite penmanship skills in his early years. These skills are evident in high school drawings such as Thomas Crawford's "Freedom." Later drawings are investigative, instructive, and preparatory. Process on Paper includes perspective and mechanical drawings; anatomical sketches made during dissections and life study; illustrations for an artistic training manual; and project drawings made in preparation for rowing and boating scenes, genre, landscape and portrait paintings. Oil studies made for similar purposes demonstrate the interesting contrasts between Eakins' linear and painterly styles. (left: Thomas Eakins, Thomas Crawford's "Freedom", 1861, Pen and ink and wash on cream wove paper, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Charles Bregler's Thomas Eakins Collection Purchased with the partial support of the Pew Memorial Trust and the John S. Phillips Fund, 1985.68.4.1)

In addition to documenting Eakins' study and practice as an artist, Process on Paper tells the fascinating story of Charles Bregler, who rescued hundreds of drawings, manuscripts, and photographs from Thomas Eakins' studio before its sale in 1938. Bregler sold a few of the objects from his collection, but kept the vast majority of it out of public view. After Charles Bregler's death, his young widow rebuffed "a stream of scholars, curators and dealers" until 1984, when two young curators from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts managed not only to inventory the vast collection, but also to arrange for its purchase. (left: Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), Drawing, [Man holding Frame, with Boy Facing Left], ca. 1886, Pen and ink over graphite on cream wove paper, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Charles Bregler's Thomas Eakins Collection Purchased with the partial support of the Pew Memorial Trust and the John S. Phillips Fund, 1985.68.3.1)

The Bregler Collection, now fully catalogued and conserved, has revolutionized understanding of Eakins' art and life, in particular by expanding the number of known drawings by Eakins fourfold. The 23 drawings and 7 oil sketches in Process on Paper will be on view from February 11 through June 3. At the exhibition opening on February 11, curators Kathleen Foster and Elizabeth Milroy will share their story of uncovering and recovering the Bregler Collection. (left: Thomas Eakins, Negro Boy Dancing: Perspective Study, c. 1878, Pen and Black, red and Blue ink over graphite on two sheets of foolscap, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Charles Bregler's Thomas Eakins Collection Purchased with the partial support of the Pew Memorial Trust and the John S. Phillips Fund, 1985.68.16.1)

 

Following is an essay by Amy Werbel, which is reprinted with permission from the Robert Hull Fleming Museum, Burlington, Vermont. This essay was originally published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title presented by the Fleming Museum February 11 - June 3, 2001.

 

Process on Paper: Drawings from Charles Bregler's Thomas Eakins Collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

by Amy Werbel

Thomas Eakins, America's most celebrated nineteenth-century portrait painter, never executed a single drawing that he intended for public display or sale. His drawings were preparatory, investigative, and instructive, but never an end within themselves. Yet no medium was more central to Eakins' artistic production than drawing. Almost every effort during the first twenty years of his career began with studies in graphite, charcoal, or pen, and the artist continued to draw at the end of his career, even when his mastery of painting was so profound that preparatory planning would have seemed unnecessary.

Eakins' reliance on drawing is no surprise given his early home life and training. Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins was born in 1844, the son of Philadelphia calligrapher and penmanship instructor Benjamin Eakins and his wife Caroline Cowperthwait Eakins. As a result of his father's profession, Thomas's childhood was spent in a comfortable middle-class home filled with handcrafted and highly decorated marriage licenses, diplomas, and legal documents. Benjamin's three surviving children all helped with the production of these documents during busy times.

An excellent student in grammar school, Thomas Eakins earned a coveted spot in Philadelphia's prestigious Central High School in 1857. For the next four years, he was immersed in a program that combined penmanship and drawing, as typical of public schools at the time, but then progressed to the advanced fields of mechanical, isometric, and perspective drawing. It was in these rigorous "scientific" drawing disciplines that Eakins first began to distinguish himself.

Mechanical Drawing: Three Spirals demonstrates the mechanical draughtsman's mode of representation, combining measured floor plans and elevations on a single sheet. As Eakins' first formal introduction to this medium, mechanical drawing taught him the value of measurement and precision. Precision is also evident in Eakins' senior year drawing, "Freedom," which faithfully renders Thomas Crawford's statue atop the United States Capitol building, sculpted shortly before the Civil War as an expression of Union patriotism. Both drawings demonstrate Eakins' early achievements in drawing styles requiring diligent measuring and copying, rather than observation and creativity.

One year after his graduation from Central High School, in 1861, Thomas Eakins enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he made drawings from plaster casts of classical sculptures and attended lectures on anatomy. In 1863, he was admitted to the life drawing class. Eakins' study of Three Left Feet in the exhibition reveals that, in many ways, the artist had to relearn drawing after years of measured calligraphic and perspectival study. New challenges lay before him at the Academy as point-of-view textural and tonal contrasts, as well as gesture were largely ignored in Eakins' public education. The artist also needed to learn more about the human body, which was to be the primary subject of his work throughout the remainder of his life.

As a student at the Academy, Eakins began attending dissections at Philadelphia's Jefferson Medical College in order to deepen his understanding of complex human forms. Surviving anatomical drawings demonstrate that the artist continued this practice well into his career. As a professor, and then as director of the Schools of the Academy, from 1878-1886, Eakins established a rigorous program of anatomical study for his students. Human cadavers, as well as those of horses, dogs, cats, and even a lion were dissected by art students during these years within the classrooms of the Academy's Broad and Cherry building.

The artist's anatomical drawings indicate his interest in only those structures that determined the visible contours of the human body: bones, tendons, and muscles were all given special attention and annotation. Eakins also studied anatomy in living bodies in order to make his depictions more scientific and accurate. Motion Study: Hind Leg of Horse in Three Phases of Gallop derives from a series of drawn, photographic, and sculptural studies all preparatory to the artist's 1879-1880 painting The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand (also known as A May Morning in the Park).

While Eakins continued to use drawing to record his observations and experiments throughout his career, he seems to have entirely shifted the focus of his more artful studies to oil as early as 1867. This was Eakins' second of three years studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris under Jean-Léon Gérôme, an education that required daily study from the nude model. By the time Eakins left Paris in 1870, he had turned from drawing to painting as his primary medium. Figure Study: Masked Nude is typical of the oil sketches the artist practiced and recommended for students. For the rest of his career, Eakins would make oil sketches to practice gesture, color, tone, and texture. Despite his belief that life study was best undertaken with oil paint and brush, Eakins never abandoned drawing. Rather, in his mature career, the artist used drawing for dissection studies as we have seen, and in his continued perspectival preparations. Negro Boy Dancing: Perspective Drawing is a typical example of Eakins' "project" drawings. In preparation for finished works, like his 1878 watercolor depicting an African-American "dancing lesson," the artist executed perspective drawings to plan spatial effects. Annotations on the drawing allow full understanding of the artist's perspectival scheme. According to Eakins scholar Kathleen Foster, "the annotations clearly state that the horizon is forty-eight inches, the viewing distance four feet, width of the scene eight feet, and that the standing man and dancing boy are five feet, seven inches and three feet, eleven inches tall, respectively"[i] From these annotations, we learn that Eakins still found measurement of his subjects and pictorial spaces important, as he did in his mechanical drawing exercises sixteen years earlier, and that he positioned himself, and the viewer, as participants in the scene. At a horizon (or eye level) of 48 inches, Eakins placed his eye at the height of two other figures in the scene -- the guitar player and dancer -- who perform under the watchful eye of an elder mentor.

In his teaching career, the "elder mentor" Eakins carefully explained his perspective theories to students in lectures at the Academy, and even wrote a drawing manual that included lessons on perspective, mechanical drawing, reflections, refraction, and the construction of a basic camera. Drawing I: The Law of Perspective, an illustration for this unpublished manual, demonstrates the concept of the "cone of vision." By measuring the line AB, and combining this information with the distance of the viewer from the picture, the student could determine the length of A'B' in the perspective drawing. Eakins continued to make perspective drawings for his paintings until the end of his life, plotting his own signature in perspective according to the special proportional formulae relevant to each canvas. An Actress (Portrait of Suzanne Santje): Plan and Perspective Study of the Artist's Signature dates from 1903, towards the end of Eakins' career. In 1907, he painted his Last full-length portrait -- for which there are no less than six perspectival drawings. The artist died in 1916.

It is rare that: a famous artist can be "rediscovered" after a century of scholarship comprised of hundreds of monographic and thematic studies. Thanks to one of Eakins Academy students, Charles Bregler, just such a rediscovery recently occurred. One of the most devastating events of Eakins' life was his 1886 dismissal from the Pennsylvania Academy. This ugly departure followed tensions surrounding the artist's inflexible teaching methods and insistence on study from the fully nude human body (dead and alive) even for students only interested in learning to paint landscapes or teacups. Bregler was one of Eakins' students at the Academy committed to his master and incensed at this turn of events. Bregler's devotion to his teacher continued for the rest of his life.

When Eakins' widow Susan Macdowell died in 1938, much of the artist's work remained in his fourth-floor studio in the Eakins family home, where he had lived since his boyhood. Shortly before the house was to be sold, Bregler made one last visit and found the floor littered with the artist's studies, considered too inconsequential at the time to merit attention and preservation. Bregler gathered what he could -- diaries, letters, oil sketches, plasters, photographs, memorabilia, and drawings -- and brought them to his own home. In 1944, in poor physical and financial health, Bregler sold the most presentable of Eakins' works in his collection, but the vast majority remained in his possession at the time of his death in 1958. Bregler's widow, Mary Louise Picozzi, soon moved to South Philadelphia, where she rebuffed dealers and curators interested in acquiring the 10 sculptures, 21 oils, 333 drawings, 300 glass negatives and positives, more than 500 photographs, and hundreds of personal papers and artifacts in her charge.[ii] In 1983, Mary Bregler finally admitted two young curators into her home and, in 1985, the Bregler Collection came to the Pennsylvania Academy. Today, Charles Bregler's Thomas Eakins Collection at the Academy allows new generations of Eakins admirers an opportunity to "rediscover" the art of America's most celebrated nineteenth-century portrait painter.[iii]

 

Notes:

i. Kathleen Adair Foster, Thomas Eakins Rediscovered: Charles Bregler's Thomas Eakins Collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (Yale University Press, 1997), p. 397.

ii. Foster, p. 2.

iii. Recovery of the Bregler Collection has made possible three important new publications: Kathleen Adair Foster, Thomas Eakins Rediscovered (see note i); Kathleen Adair Foster and Cheryl Leibold, Writing About Eakins: The Manuscripts in Charles Bregler's Thomas Eakins Collection (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989); and Susan Danly, Cheryl Leibold, et al., Eakins and the Photograph (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994). The organizers of Process on Paper are grateful to all those who have made a fresh look at Eakins possible.

About the author...

Amy Werbel is Associate Professor of Fine Arts at St. Michael's College in Colchester, VT. She received her PhD from Yale University. Professor Werbel's writings on Thomas Eakins include her dissertation, "Perspective in the Life and Art of Thomas Eakins" and several articles in journals and exhibition catalogues. She is currently working on a book, "Thomas Eakins and Nineteenth-Century American Science."

rev. 8/16/01

 

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