Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Thomas Eakins: American Realist


Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), who emerged as an outstanding American artist in the aftermath of the Civil War, stands today as one of the most challenging figures in the history of American art. In celebration of its 125th anniversary, the Museum has organized the first retrospective exhibition to fully integrate and assess the achievements of this irascible genius. It assembles more than 200 works from public and private collections nationwide and brings together a distinguished team of scholars to review the artist's remarkable achievements in painting, photography, sculpture, watercolor, and drawing. Thomas Eakins: American Realist debuts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it is on view until January 6, 2002, before traveling to Paris and New York.

The son of a writing master who early taught him the importance of craftsmanship, Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins (1844-1916) was born in Philadelphia and pursued art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Except for the period of a few years in Paris, where he studied under the fashionable narrative painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, Eakins lived in his native city and was determined to apply beaux-arts techniques to distinctly American subjects that reflected his own experience. He did not achieve commercial success and his teaching career was set back after he was dismissed from his position at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1886 but his art was widely discussed and exhibited during his lifetime. His reputation as one of the country's great painters, which began to develop after his death, has grown in recent years.

The exhibition is drawn from public and private collections throughout the United States. It includes 68 paintings, 128 photographs by the artist and his circle, 18 sculptures, 15 drawings, and eight watercolors. Eakins' fascination with athletics is reflected in his famous scenes of rowing, sailing, fishing and boxing, among other sports. Some of the finest and most celebrated of these are featured in the exhibition, including such paintings as Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (The Metropolitan Museum of Art); John Biglin in a Single Scull (Yale University Art Gallery); Starting Out After Rail (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Shad Fishing at Gloucester on the Delaware River (Philadelphia Museum of Art) and Salutat (Addison Gallery of American Art), among others. (left: The Gross Clinic, 1875, oil on canvas, 96 x 78.5 inches, Jefferson Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA)

As one of the earliest American artists to make photography an integral part of his creative process, Eakins used the medium both as a sketching tool and for artistic expression. For the first time in a major retrospective of his work, Thomas Eakins: American Realist fully integrates the artist's work in each of the media that he investigated, drawing together many works that have not been seen in a major retrospective before. It offers new insights into hi's artistic process and Eakins' position within the American art and European art of his day.

The artist's portraits, especially those of his later years that came to be seen as deeply moving character studies reflecting the complexities of American life, contributed to secure his reputation after his death. Highlights among them are Portrait of Amelia Van Buren (The Phillips Collection), Portrait of Professor Henry A. Rowland (Addison Gallery of American Art), The Thinker (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), and Antiquated Music, Portrait of Mrs. William D. Frishmuth (Philadelphia Museum of Art).

The last comprehensive survey of Eakins' work, which was mounted by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1982, traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Since that time, much new scholarship about Eakins and his times have emerged, and many previously unknown works by him have surfaced. Thomas Eakins: American Realist introduces a new generation of the public to this great painter and key figure in American art. Thomas Eakins: American Realist is organized by Darrel Sewell, The Robert L. McNeil, Jr., Curator of American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, assisted by W. Douglass Paschall, Research Associate and Coordinator, Thomas Eakins Projects, Philadelphia Museum of Art.



Co-published in hardcover by the Museum and Yale University Press, Thomas Eakins includes essays by the leading scholars exploring his education, career, and environment, including Darrel Sewell; Amy Werbel, Associate Professor of Fine Arts, St. Michael's College; H. Barbara Weinberg, Curator of American Painting and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Elizabeth Milroy, Associate Professor, Art Department, Wesleyan University; Kathleen A. Foster, Curator of 19th and 20th Century Art, Indiana University Art Museum; Marc Simpson, Associate Director, Graduate Program, Williams College; W. Douglass Paschall, Research Associate and Coordinator, Thomas Eakins Projects, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Mark S. Tucker, Senior Conservator of Paintings, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Nica Gutman, Assistant Conservator; Carol Troyen, Curator of American Paintings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and William Innes Homer, H. Rodney Sharp Professor Emeritus of Art History, University of Delaware. Thomas Eakins includes 440 pages, 250 color and 325 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN: 0-87633-142-8.



Brief biography of the artist:

Thomas Eakins was born on July 25, 1844, in Philadelphia, and with the exception of four years of study in Paris and Spain, the city remained his home. Its schools, public and private art collections, and community of artists -- many of whom were recent emigrants from Europe trained in the academic tradition and familiar with new artistic styles -- provided Eakins with an unusually wide-ranging art education for an American artist of his day.

When Eakins arrived in Paris in 1866 to continue his art studies, he was in the vanguard of young artists who would revolutionize American art over the next two decades, breaking away from the literalism of Hudson River School landscapes to emulate the figurative subject matter of European academic art. For the rest of his career, Eakins would remain the most dedicated American proponent of the painstaking, analytical artistic methods taught in European academies. Yet, as soon as he arrived back in Philadelphia, Eakins declared his independence from European conventions by painting subjects close to his own experience. Moreover, he didn't behave like his contemporaries. One critic described him as "much more like an inventor working [out] curious and interesting problems for himself than like an average artist."

Eakins was widely recognized as a formidable artistic talent almost as soon as he began to exhibit in the mid-1870s. However, his scenes of working- and middle-class life found little support from critics and patrons. His decision to concentrate on portraiture after 1886 presented an even greater challenge for his viewers, who expected flattery and stylistic dash, rather than the intense scrutiny and introspective mood that characterized Eakins' portraits.

Not until the turn of the twentieth century, when growing American nationalism called for a return to native subject matter in art and Eakins' perseverance came to be admired by his peers, did he begin to win honors and awards for his work. Artists of a younger generation, some of them Eakins' students, found in his paintings an honesty and directness that mirrored their own interests. The memorial exhibitions after his death in 1916 marked the beginning of recognition of Thomas Eakins as one of the United States' greatest artists.

The 1870s

After four years of study in Europe, Thomas Eakins returned to Philadelphia in 1870 and set up a studio in his family home. As did many of his Paris-trained American contemporaries, Eakins brought back a conviction that the figure was the most important subject for art. While his peers remained committed to allegorical, historical, and exotic genre themes, however, Eakins sought his subjects from the immediate experience of his life in Philadelphia. He began with the now-famous rowing, sailing, and hunting pictures, and made portraits of his family and friends. Even when Eakins undertook a historical subject, he chose to illustrate the life of William Rush (1756-1833), a Philadelphia sculptor, rather than a scene from ancient history or literature.

A deliberate worker who constantly assessed his own abilities, Eakins made his debut as an artist at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the first of the great international exhibitions to be held in the United States. Five of his sporting scenes and portraits were exhibited. His most ambitious painting, The Gross Clinic, was made especially for the Centennial. Initially rejected for its depiction of a surgeon with bloody hands, it was ultimately was shown in a reconstruction of an army field hospital. The work provoked critical responses ranging from wholehearted admiration to outrage, and gave rise to his reputation as a controversial artist.

Following the Centennial, Eakins began teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and quickly became known as a charismatic and innovative teacher. Instead of beginning with drawing in black-and-white, he emphasized painting from the start, and insisted upon intensive study of anatomy through dissection and sculpting. He exhibited his work aggressively, and joined the Society of American Artists, an organization of young artists opposed to the American art establishment. By 1880, Eakins had gained recognition as a prominent -- if occasionally vexatious and unconventional -- figure among the new generation of European-trained artists who were revolutionizing American art.

The 1880s

Eakins' purchase of a camera in the summer of 1880 had far-reaching consequences for his career. He had used photographs from other sources as aids for his paintings in the 1870s, but the acquisition of his own camera inspired a period of intensive investigation of photography as a tool for making art. Eakins made scores of photographs as studies for a group of major paintings, among them Mending the Net, Swimming, and Cowboys in the Bad Lands.

The artist encouraged his students at the Pennsylvania Academy to make photographs as well, and used many of them as nude models for a series that explored the structural balance of each individual. Eakins also was interested in motion photography. He was named in 1884 to a committee overseeing the work of Eadweard Muybridge, the famous photographer of figures in motion, at the University of Pennsylvania. Dissatisfied with Muybridge's results, Eakins carried out his own experiments with motion photography in the summer of 1885.

Eakins' insistence on study from nude models -- in the presence of female class members -- at the Pennsylvania Academy led to angry protests by parents and students. He was obliged to resign in 1886 at the request of the Academy board, but his father, his sister Frances and her husband, and his new wife, Susan Macdowell Eakins, continued to support him in his vigorous defense of his methods.

Following Eakins' dismissal, thirty-eight of his male students resigned from the Academy and formed the Art Students League of Philadelphia, providing him with a new forum for his life classes. He also taught at various art schools in New York, including the Art Students League, the Women's Art School of the Cooper Union, and the National Academy of Design. In the second half of the decade, he began work on the portraits of family, friends, and individuals he admired that would constitute the majority of his work for the rest of his life.

Eakins and Photography

The announcement in 1839 of the invention of photography drew an avid following in the scientific and artistic communities of Philadelphia. Local institutions supported early experiments with the new medium. The inclusion of photographs in the city's art exhibitions -- alongside drawings, prints, and painted portrait miniature -- implicitly acknowledged their aesthetic status. (left: Circle of Thomas Eakins, [Thomas Eakins at Forty], 1880s, albumen print, 8 1/4 x 3 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Eakins was a member of the first generation to grow up with photography, and his neighbors and friends were among the finest early photographers. Several established Philadelphia artists used photographs as aids in painting and engraving. Like them, Eakins adopted photography as a tool of artistic study, but he did so with an unequaled thoroughness and understanding of its potential. By the early 1880s, the camera had become for Eakins an alternative sketchbook, its imagery no less carefully considered or methodically wrought than his drawn or sculpted studies.

At the Pennsylvania Academy, Eakins and his students turned their classroom into a laboratory of photographic experimentation. They made images of models and each other -- at stiff attention, in lithe repose, or in action, nude, or in costume. These works are virtually all unsigned, making the task of distinguishing the work of one from another difficult. However, their shared purpose and style renders such a distinction less crucial.

Eakins made many of his photographs as sources for paintings or as teaching aids, usually as albumen prints or cyanotypes, and printed many of these again in the more permanent platinum process as satisfying works in their own right. Until the end of his career, he made photographic portraits -- first of his family, then of students and friends -- in parallel with his paintings, exploring the expressive potential of each medium. Although Eakins rarely sought public recognition for his photograph -- he exhibited them only twice -- his work was well known to some of the most forward-looking photographers of the next generation, who recognized in it a harbinger of trends to come.

A Note about Photographs in the Exhibition
Eakins and his students, most often concerned with the ways the camera could support their work in traditional mediums, seldom titled their photographs. As appreciation for these images has grown in recent decades, the titles given to them by scholars, dealers, and collectors have varied widely. For consistency in this exhibition, lenders of photographs have graciously agreed to permit the use of generic, descriptive titles, which are shown in brackets.
Among the riches of Charles Bregler's Thomas Eakins Collection, now owned by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, are many original negatives by Eakins and his students for which no prints are known to exist. To represent the work of these photographers in its full range, modern digital prints have been made from some of these negatives, with the kind consent of the Academy. An additional modern print has been made from a negative in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The 1890s

The 1890s began with a series of disappointments for Eakins. He submitted The Agnew Clinic to the Pennsylvania Academy's annual exhibition of 1891, but the work was rejected on a technicality. The Society of American Artists in New York declined to exhibit all but one of Eakins' submissions for three consecutive years -- prompting him to resign in 1892. The Art Students League of Philadelphia, formed by Eakins' loyal students from the Pennsylvania Academy, closed its doors in 1893. Revealing his state of mind at the time, the artist declared in a letter: "My honors are misunderstanding, persecution, & neglect, enhanced because unsought."

Nonetheless, Eakins' work was well represented in several major exhibitions during the decade. He showed five portraits at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1891, perhaps to signal a deliberate change of direction for his art. With the encouragement of the Academy's new director, Eakins began to exhibit there regularly in 1894. Ten of his paintings, including The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic, were selected by his peers for exhibition at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, making Eakins one of only a dozen American painters whose work was shown in such numbers. In 1896, the Earle Gallery in Philadelphia mounted the artist's first and only solo exhibition, showing twenty-nine of his canvases.

Eakins devoted considerable time during the decade to public sculpture, collaborating with the New York sculptor William O'Donovan from 1891 through 1895 on the Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Arch in Brooklyn and the Trenton Battle Monument, and assisting Samuel Murray, a Philadelphia sculptor and former student, with large-scale public commissions. Most of Eakins' paintings during the 1890s were portraits, but in the last years of the decade he returned to sporting subjects with his depictions of boxing and wrestling matches. As in his rowing scenes of the 1870s, these works brought everyday American life into the realm of fine art.

The 1900s

At the turn of the century, Eakins began work on a series of life-size portraits, such as The Thinker, that brought him a measure of success. The Faculty Club of the University of Pennsylvania mounted a large exhibition of his paintings, displayed alongside sculptures by his former student Samuel Murray. He was awarded numerous medals and cash prizes, yet most of his works would fail to sell until decades later. One exception was the Portrait of Dr. Agnew, a study for The Agnew Clinic, that was shown at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1914, and caused a sensation when it was purchased for $4,000 by the outspoken champion of modern art, Dr. Albert C. Barnes.

By now, Eakins had gained the esteem of many of his fellow artists, culminating in his election in 1902 to the National Academy of Design, the most prestigious art organization in the United States. Designated an associate-elect in March, Eakins painted the required self-portrait in less than two months, and was elected a full academician in May. No other artist in the history of the institution previously had been elected both associate and academician in the same year.

He received a number of commissions from men in the professional and business communities. Yet the intensely introspective quality that characterized his best portraits was reserved for people he knew well, such as his father-in-law, William Macdowell. In 1908, perhaps reviewing his own career, Eakins revisited the William Rush theme of thirty-two years before. In one of these paintings, he portrayed his own stocky figure helping a nude model down from the modeling stand.

Eakins died on June 25, 1916. In the following year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened a memorial exhibition of sixty of his paintings, and the Pennsylvania Academy mounted an exhibition of more than one hundred of his works.

Text and images courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art.


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Thomas Eakins: A Motion Portrait is a 60 minute 1986 video produced in association with the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the life of Thomas Eakins, which was both heroic and tragic. A brilliant portraitist who painted his subjects as he saw them and an outspoken teacher who demanded respect for the entire human body, Eakins flouted the conventions of proper Philadelphia society in the Victorian era. Shot on location In Philadelphia, the film combines dramatic sequences in which all dialog has been verified as authentic, with archival footage, still photographs, and interviews to create a moving portrait of a man who was not recognized as one of America's greatest painters until many years after his death in 1916. Narrated by Sam Waterston. American Masters series. Produced by Spofford Films, Inc., in association with American Masters/WNET/Channel 13; The ASDA Foundation "Tells the story of American painter Thomas Eakins (1844--1916). His use of nude models and insistence on the study of anatomy by art students made Eakins a controversial figure in his era."
Thomas Eakins and the Swimming Picture Examines the painting Swimming (1895) by American painter Thomas Eakins (1844--1916). Uses X-ray photography to analyze his working methods and to investigate how Eakins changed the composition by adjusting three of his figures. Shows students at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts painting live nude models based on Eakins's techniques. 11-minute video from 1996. Description source: Amon Carter Museum Teacher Resource Center
Thomas Eakins: Scenes From Modern Life is a 60 minute video released in 2001 and narrated by Blythe Danner and directed by Glenn Holsten. This visually appealing biography traces the life of eminent 19th-century American painter and photographer Thomas Eakins.

TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format.



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