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Thomas Eakins

Philadelphia Museum of Art

October 4, 2001 to January 6, 2002

Musée d’Orsay, Paris

February 5 to May 12, 2002

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

June 18 to September 15, 2002

"Starting Out After Rail" by Eakins

“Starting Out After Rail,” oil on canvas mounted on masonite, 24 ¼ by 19 7/8 inches, 1974, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection

By Carter B. Horsley

Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) was one of America's greatest artists, obdurately fascinated with character and clarity.

He is best known for his engrossing portraits, such as "The Gross Clinic" and "The Agnew Clinic," and for his luminous paintings of scullers on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.   He is also famed for being one of the first American painters to embrace photography and he collaborated with Edward Muybridge in studying the movement of animals and humans.

Unfortunately, much of his painted oeuvre is devoted to somber and uncompromising portraits that are very impressive, but not too exciting to the general public. Eakins, indeed, was a very serious artist and would become known as the American Rembrandt, a comparison not unfounded for there is great profundity in his work as well as originality and a powerful compositional sense.

At a time when portraiture was primarily concerned with flattering depictions of the upper classes and Impressionistic styles of considerable bravura, Eakins chose a more realistic approach that reflected scientific interests. During his lifetime, however, he only sold about 30 of his works.

Eakins produced about three dozen great paintings during his long career that was marked by controversy over his use of nude models.  Many of his finest works are sporting subjects of scullers, wrestlers, boxers, baseball players, hunters, and fishermen, and many of these and were done early in his career and brought him considerable fame at the time, but he spent much of his later career doing portraits that were often neither flattering nor fashionable and his reputation waned for decades.

Eakins is intriguing because he was clearly capable of becoming the nation’s premier artist but his eccentricities led him down other less popular paths especially as contemporaries such as Whistler and William Merritt Chase and Sargent became famous for their bravura styles in dramatic contrast to his meticulous precision.

In his catalogue essay, “Thomas Eakins and American Art,” Darrel Sewell, the Robert L. McNeil Jr. Curator of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, makes the following observation:

“Eakins's moody portraits of middle-class individuals were not easily marketed as works of art.  Although some of them, such as his own self-portrait…are painted with beautiful technique, Eakins’s ordinary people may have reminded his urban audience too keenly of their own origins or states of mind.  In contrast, Winslow Homer (1936-1910), allowed city dwellers to escape from their surroundings by imagining themselves in rugged landscapes, triumphing over the elemental forces of nature.”

Homer is America’s greatest artist because he was best illustrator of the Civil War, a major impressionist painter before the French, a powerful marine painter, a great genre painter, and perhaps the greatest watercolorist of all time.  Moreover, his oeuvre abounds with hundreds of masterpieces.

"The Gross Clinic" by Eakins

“The Gross Clinic,” oil on canvas, 96 by 78 ½ inches, 1975, Jefferson Medical College of the Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia

In his June 21, 2002 review of this exhibition for The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman declared that Eakins “painted, hands down, the finest 19th Century American painting, ‘The Gross Clinic,’ which, by itself, justifies leaving your home right now and visiting the Met, and which is a good place to start thinking about Eakins’s large but somewhat peculiar achievement.”

In his June 24, 2002 review of the exhibition in The New York Observer, Hilton Kramer states that Eakins and Henry James (1843-1916) were “the greatest artists of that American generation in their respective fields of endeavor,” adding that “Both were pioneer artists of the Realist school whose work encountered dispiriting opposition from a philistine public.  In the pursuit of their artistic vacations, however, both enjoyed the unwavering support of exceptionally liberal fathers.  Both devoted some of their finest works to the depiction of women, yet in the lives of both there is a current of homoerotic sentiment that is unmistakable.  In the end, both died doubting thath their greatest achievements would ever win the recognition they deserved.”

“The Gross Clinic” is Eakins’s most famous work, a very bold and dramatic painting depicting Dr. Samuel David Gross working in the surgery amphitheater of the Jefferson Medical College of the Thomas Jefferson University in Philadephia where Eakins studied anatomy.  The doctor is highlighted in the center of the picture standing beside his assistants who are exposing a patient’s leg cut open while a woman in block raises her clenched hand to her face on the other side of the doctor.  The doctor’s shock of white hair and the woman’s clenched hand virtually “jump” out of the picture while the deeply shaded background reveals on-looking students of the operation in this “clinic.”  Eakins was 30 years old when he painted this large picture, which is in the college’s collection.

The doctor’s face and the woman’s hand are wonderfully done but what is rather remarkable is the top half of the picture which is very darkly gray with barely discernible figures of the students.

"The Agnew Clinic" by Eakins

“The Agnew Clinic,” oil on canvas, 84 3/8 by 118 1/8 inches, 1889, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

One’s initial reaction is that this part of the painting is not finished, only roughed in, for even if the amphitheater’s lighting was minimal one would assume there would be some darker shadows, especially when one contrasts it with Eakin’s other famous “medical” painting, “The Agnew Clinic” in the collection of the University of Pennsylvania, in which the students watching Dr. D. Hayes Agnew and his assistants perform a mastectomy are show in much more well-lit conditions, although the faces of the students are not terribly well done.  Indeed, the students in the “Agnew” painting form a fascinating, horizontal composition with their heads angled in many directions.  “The Agnew Clinic” was executed in 1889, 14 years after “The Gross Clinic” and the two works are very different and one could argue that “The Agnew Clinic” is the better work conceptually although there is no denying that the figure of Dr. Gross is dazzling and mesmerizing.  Both works exemplify seriousness of purpose, highlight the doctors and are boldly realistic clinically, but “The Agnew Clinic” is in a horizontal format as opposed to the more conventional vertical format of the “The Gross Clinic” and is a much more complex and interesting composition.

These two, large "clinic" pictures are ambitious and certainly manifest a profound respect for the wonders of medicine, the role of the teacher and teaching institutions, and the tenuousness of life. It is therefore something of a shock to confront his fabulous pictures of scullers on the Schuylkill River for they are as electric as the best landscapes of Frederic E. Church and Albert Bierstadt are grandiloquent. The most immediate comparison for the sculling pictures would be the serene "luminous" coastal pictures of John F. Kensett and Fitz Hugh Lane, but Eakins' pictures bristle while Kensett's and Lane's calm. Eakins' technical skills in capturing brilliant light is unsurpassed.

Commentators tend to focus on Eakins’s sensitive and somewhat melancholic portraits and his independence from contemporary artistic trends.  While it is true that he remained steadfastly true to the realistic styles he studied under Jean-Léon Gerome, the Parisian academician, and later Léon Bonnat, and that he was not significantly influenced by the preceding generation of Hudson River School painters in America, or French Impressionism, this ignores his incredible handling of light in his sculling pictures, which are brilliantly “luminous” and perhaps should be included among the major works of “Luminism,” a style of landscape painting that evolved out of the Hudson River School and is closely identified with many of the works of such artists as Fitz Hugh Lane, John F. Kensett, and Sanford R. Gifford.

"Max Schmitt in a Single Scull" by Eakins

“Max Schmitt in a Single Scull,” oil on canvas, 32 ½ by 46 ¼ inches, 1871, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Fund and George D. Pratt Gift, 1934

“Max Schmitt in a Single Scull,” oil on canvas, 32 ½ by 46 ¼ inches, 1871, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Fund and George D. Pratt Gift, 1934, shown above, and “Starting Out After Rail,” oil on canvas mounted on masonite, 24 ¼ by 19 7/8 inches, 1974, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection, shown at the top of this article, well demonstrate Eakins's luminism. "Starting Out After Rail" is the cover illustration of the exhibition's superb and large catalogue.

Large detail of "Mending the Net" by Eakins

Large detail of “Mending the Net,” oil on canvas, 32 1/8 by 45 1/8 inches, 1881, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss Mary Adeline Williams, 1929

Some of Eakins’s other “outdoor” works, such as “Mending the Net,” (1881, oil on canvas, 32 1/8 by 45 1/8 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss Mary Adeline Williams, 1929), shown above, and “Shad Fishing at Gloucester on the Delaware River,” (also 1881 and also Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss Mary Adeline Williams, 1929), in fact are lovely blends of “luminism” and “Tonalism,” another landscape style that was much softer and is typified by the later landscape works of George Inness and are also related to the poetic and lyrical pastoral figurative works of Thomas Wilmer Dewing, contemporaries of Eakins.  These Eakins landscapes, of course, are not Tonalist works for they have his marvelous precision and eye for detail that are not present in the “Tonalist” and Whistlerian styles.

Eakins, it appears, was not much concerned with style per se and was not hesitant to experiment and change course and direction, which, of course, confuses the public and critics, alike.  There is, of course, a consistent sensibility about his works, an intense awareness of intimate observation and a closeness to subject.  Nothing is casual about Eakins.  His many photographs of nudes are proud proclamations of the human body and there is a definite streak of independence and rebellion in the amount of attention he gave to nudity.

"William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River" by Eakins

“William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River,” oil on canvas, 20 1/8 by 26 1/8 inches, 1876-7, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss Adeline Williams, 1929

It is interesting to note that one of his other major works, “William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River,” (1876-7, oil on canvas, 20 1/8 by 26 1/8 inches, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss Mary Adeline Williams, 1929) is very similar to "The Gross Clinic" in its bold highlighting of the standing female nude figure and the obscured details of the background of the artist's studio as well as the deployment of yet another seated woman beside the main figure. The nude and her pile of clothes on the chair are exquisitely rendered and one suspects that Eakins was showing off a bit for one can see a tiny sliver of light on the front of the nude's right thigh if one looks closely enough. Again Eakins has chosen to leave the background in much less detail to highlight what he wants the viewer to focus on, leading one to think that perhaps he was making exclamation points of his highlights to prove he could execute flawlessly and that was enough, a rather daring approach for not all collectors are happy with paintings that at first glance seem unfinished....(Mary Cassatt's best works, in this reviewer's opinion, are some her large sketches and these type of works of art take the viewer into the creative act of when an artist finds satisfaction and can stop.)

One of his most celebrated drawings is a "Study of Seated Nude Woman Wearing a Mask," a 1863-6 charcoal on paper, 24 1/4 by 18 5/8 inches in the Philadelphia Museum of art. Mr. Sewell notes in his essay that in this work "Eakins achieved an expressiveness rare in academic figure drawing and unequaled in American art until this time,” adding that “The intensely studied, boldly drawn, fleshy woman, wearing a large mask tied so tightly across her face that it constitutes a blindfold, provides a wide range of responses and speculations.”  “Perhaps even at this early point in his career, Eakins was considering the shock value of the nude figure, carefully manipulating an ostensibly realistic study to create dramatic effects as he did later….”

In 1869, Eakins went to Spain where he found “The Fable of Arachne (The Spinners),” by Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez at the Prado Museum in Madrid to be “the finest piece of painting” he had “ever seen.”  The 1657 Velázquez painting that Eakins called “The Tapestry Weaver” appealed to him, Mr. Sewell noted, because “the artist’s method of defining the mass of the main figure before indicating her features.”  “I think Ribera and Rembrandt,” Sewell quoted Eakins, “proceeded in the same way, the only [method], in my opinion, that can give both delicacy and strength at the same time….As soon as my things [that is, my preliminary arrangements] are in place, I shall aggressively seek my broad effect from the very beginning..”

“His aim, it seems, was to recombine the best aspects of the French academic and Spanish Baroque traditions,” Mr. Sewell wrote, “to unite composition and ‘broad effect,’ careful structure and tactile surface, much as Bonnat had done….

Mr. Sewell then provides the following quotation from Eakins:

“I must resolve never to paint in the manner of my master [Gérôme]….One can hardly expect to be stronger than he, and he is far from painting like the Ribera or the Velasquez works, although he is as strong as any painter of polished surfaces….The Weaver of Velasquez, although having much impasto, has no roughness at all to catch the light….So, paint as heavily as I like, but never leave any roughness.  The things of Velasquez are almost made to slide on….Velasquez does a lot of glazing with quite transparent color in the shade areas, but it is very solidly painted underneath.”

Eakins was a very fine watercolorist and several watercolors of women at the spinning wheel are including in the exhibition as well as “The Dancing Lesson (Negro Boy Dancing,” 1879, The Metropolitna Museum of Art.

"Portrait of Mary Adeline Williams" by Eakins

“Portrait of Mary Adeline Williams,” oil on canvas, 24 1/8 by 18 1/8 inches, circa 1900, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss Mary Adeline Williams, 1929

While many of the portraits are pensive, some standout sensationally such as "Portrait of mary Adeline Williams," shown above, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss Williams, and "An Actress (Portrait of Suzanne Santje)," shown below, also in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

"An Actress (Portrait of Suzanne Santje" by Eakins

"An Actress (Portrait of Suzanne Santje)," oil on canvas, 79 3/4 by 59 7/8 inches, 1903, Philadelphia Museum of art, Gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss Mary Adeline Williams, 1929

A couple of Eakins portraits have very unusual frames designed by the artist such as "Portrait of Professor Henry A. Rowland," which in the collection of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., shown below. One wishes Eakins had done more such specific frames for his portraits as they are very interesting and impressive.

"Portrait of Professor Henry A. Rowland" by Eakins

“Portrait of Professor Henry A. Rowland,” oil on canvas, 80 ¼ by 54 inches, 1897, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass., Gift of Stephen C. Clark, Esq.

The exhibition, which includes about 60 paintings and about 120 photographs, is sponsored by Fleet.  It is the first major exhibition on the artist since 1982 when the Philadelphia Museum of Art held a show on Eakins that also was shown at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Click here to order the hardcover edition of the exhibition catalogue from

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a website with numerous works from the exhibition at



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