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An example of work by Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins
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|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|Born in Philadelphia, Thomas Eakins was a portrait and genre painter
whom many regard as the father of modern realism in American Art.
Embodying many of the ideals of advances in science, industry, and
technology of his time, he was an avid student of science and anatomy,
resulting in collisions with the moral boundaries of the Victorian
era. In his quest for anatomical accuracy in his work, Eakins was
a pioneer in his use of photography in art making, and established a
tradition of portraiture that was distinctly American, his knowledge of
the human body allowing him to create a sense of naturalism in his
After graduating from the local Central High School in Philadelphia
with honors in mathematics, science, and French, he applied for a
position as Professor of Drawing at his alma mater, but was
rejected. He then registered at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine
Arts, where he studied drawing from antique casts. He rebelled at
the outdated methods of these classes and ultimately changed his focus
to anatomy studies given by Dr. A.R Thomas at the Academy. Paying
$25 to legally avoid being conscripted into the Union Army for the
Civil War, he continued to attend lectures on anatomy given at the
Jefferson Medical Center. (R. Nagel)
In 1866 Eakins applied for admission to the Ecole Des Beaux Arts in
Paris, which up to that time had consistently rejected American
students. Eakins’ request came at the moment when that policy was
changed, however, and Americans were welcomed, so he set sail
From 1866 to 1869, he was at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris as a
student of historical painter, Jean Leon Gerome. In Gerome’s
version of academic painting, tone came first, and mastery of
gradations of black and white were essential. Gerome was fanatic
about drawing in preparation to painting, but Eakins later developed
his own approach to preparatory drawings, purchasing a camera in 1880,
a tool that became central to much of his art.
Eakins traveled widely during his time in Europe, but perhaps his most
important visit was to Spain, where he hoped to gain relief from
illness and depression. While in Spain he was exposed to work of
Francisco Goya and Diego Velazquez, major influences on his emerging
naturalistic style and his use of multi-layered glazes. He did
not follow the path of many artists of his period who used the dashing,
light- handed methods of the Impressionists or the subtle, mood evoking
palette of the Tonalists. He was not interested in Impressionism,
but rather in ‘reality’.
Upon his return to Paris from Spain, he found it necessary to leave due
to the political instability brought on by the Franco-Prussian War
(1870). Back in Philadelphia, he continued to attend anatomy and
dissection exercises at Jefferson Medical Center and registered for
surgical demonstrations at the Jefferson Hospital Gross Clinic.
In fact, one of Eakins most famous later paintings, The Gross Clinic, of 1875 depicts a surgery by one of the Jefferson School physicians and was shockingly realistic at that time. For many years, the painting remained at the Jefferson Hospital, but in 2007 hospital personnel decided to sell the work to raise money for the hospital. Representatives of the National Gallery of Art and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas offered $68 million dollars, but fundraising in Philadelphia raised an equal amount, and the work was secured for the Philadelphia Museum.
He married Susan Hannah MacDowell (1851-1938), one of his students,
who, with Eakins as one of the judges, had been the recipient of a
prize awarded to the best female painter at a Pennsylvania Academy
exhibition. A talented artist in her own right, Susan MacDowell
Eakins painted throughout her life. She first saw Eakins in 1876
at the Hazeltine Gallery, where his painting The Gross Clinic
(1875), was shocking Philadelphia with its bloody realism.
She was impressed at once and decided to study with him at the
MacDowell was twenty-five when she enrolled in 1876, and she studied
there for the next six years. One of Eakins’ finest students, she
was the first winner of the Academy’s above-mentioned Mary Smith prize,
as well as a leader of the student body. Her career paralleled
that of her husband, including the use of photography as an artistic
technique. With her encouragement, he gave up most landscape
painting to focus on portraits.
Thomas Eakins photographed cats, dogs, children, horses, and of course
people, oftentimes nude. Some of his photographs are multiple
exposures, investigations of photo-sequences that display his curiosity
about human and animal locomotion, which he explored with fellow
photographer Edward Muybridge. At times Eakins posed in photographs
himself, including one, undressed, of himself astride the family
horse. Others portray his wife, also at times nude.
In 1873, he accepted a faculty appointment to the Pennsylvania Academy,
a position he held until 1886. At that time an event occurred
which greatly affected his career. Eakins had been a firm believer that
all students, male or female, should have the chance to work from nude
models. The Pennsylvania Academy allowed female students to
participate in life drawing classes, but insisted that the males wear
loincloths, a policy Eakins adhered to until one day in 1886. In
the presence of both male and female students, Eakins removed a
loincloth from a male nude model, ostensibly to demonstrate a detail of
anatomy. Despite his protests, he was asked to resign his
position as Director of the Schools and Professor of Painting at the
Pennsylvania Academy. Many students resigned in protest and
created an alternative society, the Art Students’ League of
Philadelphia in an effort to provide Eakins with a teaching post, and
so their teacher could carry on life-drawing classes as usual.
Nonetheless, he was expelled from the Academy on charges of ‘conduct
unbecoming a gentleman’ amid rumors also questioning his sexual
orientation. It is perhaps worth note that the members of the
Philadelphia Sketch Club, however, voted against the expulsion.
In 1895 he was again dismissed for a similar reason from his position
at the Drexel Institute of the Arts.
All of these events caused serious consequences to his career, his
marriage, and his health, resulting in a reoccurrence of his
depression, which he treated by traveling to the BT ranch in the Dakota
Territory, (now North Dakota), where he painted his ‘Cowboy’ series of
paintings. For ten weeks he traveled in the Dakota Badlands
during the summer of 1887, the inspiration for his noted work Cowboys in the Badlands.
(note: sold at auction for $5,383,500, Christie’s ‘03.) The
cowboys in the painting are loosely modeled after photographs Eakins
took while in the Badlands. The horses used for the trip he purchased,
and upon his return sketched them at his sister’s farm in Avondale,
Pennsylvania. In 1887, shortly before leaving on the trip, Eakins
had met the poet Walt Whitman, who described Eakins at the time as ‘run
down and out of sorts’ (philamuseum.org) when he began his travels, but
much improved upon his return. The artist and the poet were to remain
close friends until Whitman’s death in
His boating scenes on the Schuykill River were among the first
recreational scenes ever painted in this country. He also had
wide-ranging curiosity about physiology, athletics, as reflected in his
sporting works, such as his ‘Boxer’s’ series.
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Ronal L. Nagel, Thomas Eakins: Painter of Doctors and Other American ‘Doers website of the Philadelphia Museum, philamuseum.org
website of pbs.org for the documentary: Thomas Eakins: Scenes from Modern Life tigtail.org.
"National News", ARTnews, February 2007
|Biography from The Caldwell Gallery - I:|
|Thomas Eakins was born in 1844. He studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In addition to his artistic studies, he pursued anatomy at the Jefferson Medical School. Eakins is one of America’s best Realist artists, specifying in portraiture and figurative subjects such as the “Gross Clinic”. This painting depicts the surgeon Samuel Gross, at work with students quietly observing. He also painted in the modern genre and sports subjects, including a boxing series done in the 1890s. Eakins’ scientific study in the mechanics of nature provided him with precise information applied to his technique.|
Eakins was a teacher at the PAFA from 1873-1886. He emphasized the importance of anatomy in order for students to understand figural composition. Eakins resigned in 1886 after a dispute over removing cloth that covered a model in his class. After his resignation, Eakins organized a Philadelphia Art Students League but it only lasted a few years. Eakins was also a talented photographer, using his pictures as studies for paintings as well as an independent art in itself.
Babcock Galleries, NYC, liquidated Eakins estate shortly after his death in 1916.
|** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.|
Thomas Eakins is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
New York Armory Show of 1913
Painters of Nudes
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915
Paris Pre 1900