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Eakins In Light And Shadow
The man who may be America’s greatest artist liked to fend off the curious with the statement “My life is all in my works. ” He was right, but the works and the life take on new poignance with the release and exhibition of a once-private collection of his letters, photographs, and sketchbooks.
September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
Thomas Eakins is now recognized as one of the greatest American painters, but in his own era his reputation was uncertain. He had only a single one-man show during his lifetime, and despite memorial exhibitions in New York and Philadelphia after his death in 1916 and his widow’s substantial gift of paintings to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1929, Eakins remained relatively obscure until Lloyd Goodrich published a ground-breaking monograph on him in 1933. Only in recent years have critics and scholars begun fully to appreciate the depth and complexity of his art and to probe the contradictory impulses that seem to have motivated his life and his work.
Much of Eakins’s professional life was centered on the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied and taught—and from which, in a celebrated incident, he was dismissed as director. It is therefore both fitting and ironic that a major Eakins exhibition has just been mounted by the Pennsylvania Academy, where it will be on view until April 5, 1992. “Thomas Eakins Rediscovered: At Home, at School, at Work” reexamines the artist’s career largely through the important collection of letters, sketchbooks, photographs, manuscripts, and works of art that were assembled after his death by a former student named Charles Bregler. The exhibition includes many previously unexhibited works and documents and casts fresh light on his career. It also provides new evidence about a series of scandals that dogged him for years. Throughout his later life Eakins was accused of sexual improprieties by former students and models. And although it is difficult to ascertain whether any of these accusations were based on fact, it does become clear that Eakins projected a dangerous aura of sexuality both in his daily life and in his art. This made him a natural target for those who resented the way he stood apart from other men—in his high-minded teaching methods, in his exceptional artistic ability, and in the unconventional way he chose to live his life.
“Eakins is not a painter, he is a force,” Walt Whitman said after the two men met in 1887, when Eakins went to Camden to ask the poet to sit for a portrait. For Whitman, Eakins’s strong character and unbending ethical commitment to his art clearly were more important than his technical skills. The poet must also have been impressed by the way Eakins was willing to confront a certain antiartistic bias in American culture and even to incorporate that bias into his art, somewhat the way Whitman himself did.
As an artist and as a man, Eakins was a complex mixture of conservatism and daring, of loyalty and rebellion. He not only spent most of his life in Philadelphia, the city of his birth, but lived the greater part of it in his parental home at 1729 Mount Vernon Street. And yet, although he was so firmly rooted, his fierce independence of mind set him against the world of which he was such an integral part, and his life was a series of struggles with the society around him.
Parochial as he was in many ways, he was highly cultivated. He was well read not only in American and English literature but also in several other languages. Although he went to Europe only once, he stayed there four years, and he knew French and Italian well enough to carry on lively correspondences in those languages. Provincial and cosmopolitan, ingenuous and sophisticated, pragmatic and imaginative, Thomas Eakins seems in many ways to embody late-nineteenth-century America itself.
He was born on July 25, 1844, the first child of Benjamin Eakins, a writing master and teacher, and Caroline Cowperthwait Eakins. The next two decades brought him three sisters, with whom he had complicated relationships. Frances (known as Fanny), born in 1848, eventually broke off with him because she held him responsible for the suicide of one of her daughters; Margaret (called Maggie), born in 1853, was his favorite (and a frequent model), and her death in 1882 shook him to the core; Caroline (known as Caddy), born in 1865, married one of Eakins’s pupils, George Frank Stephens, who later became a bitter enemy.
His was a prosperous and cultivated middle-class family. Benjamin Eakins invested wisely in real estate and other property, from which he derived the comfortable income that allowed him to encourage his son’s artistic ambitions. The Eakinses were very musical, and although Tom never learned to play an instrument, the subjects of his paintings reflect the many house concerts that were given at Mount Vernon Street.
The family moved there in 1857, the year Eakins was admitted to the Central High School of Philadelphia, the first public high school in Pennsylvania. Modeled on Boston’s Latin School, Central High granted admission solely on the basis of merit, and the course of study mixed the traditional classical curriculum with training in the modern sciences. Throughout his life Eakins retained a lively interest in science and was particularly interested in anatomy, optics, and various kinds of locomotion. (In 1894 the Proceedings of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences published his paper on “The Differential Action of Certain Muscles Passing More Than One Joint.”)