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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
Eakins received excellent grades in drawing, and the year after graduating he competed unsuccessfully for the position of professor of drawing, writing, and bookkeeping. That same year, 1862, he registered at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he drew from casts of antique sculpture and attended lectures on anatomy. A few months later he was permitted to draw from the live model but, following common academic practice, he still did no painting. At the same time, he attended anatomy courses at Jefferson Medical College, and he appears to have considered making a career in medicine.
In 1866 Eakins decided to study art in Paris. His father fully backed him in this decision, assuring him that he would provide support not only for schooling but, if need be, for the rest of his life. In Paris Eakins worked in the studio of Jean-Léon Gér’ôme at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he drew extensively from the nude model. One of the most successful academic painters of the day, Gér’ôme was known for his meticulously detailed rendering of historical and exotic subjects and his incisively dramatic compositions. He was also a sworn enemy of realist and modernist painting, so much so that in 1893 he fought against the French government’s accepting the gift of impressionist paintings from the bequest of Gustave Caillebotte.
Possibly because of his teacher’s bias, Eakins appears to have had no interest in the French realists or impressionists, even though they were his contemporaries. And although in just a few years Eakins’s paintings would have more in common with realists such as Courbet than with Gér’ôme he stayed loyal to the memory of his academic master for the rest of his life. Eakins’s notion of realism was tied to an almost photographic mode of visual perception that was very like Gérôme’s. The blatantly subjective technique of the impressionists remained forever outside his purview.
Yet within the somewhat narrow limits he set for himself, he sought to be independent, socially as well as artistically. Even though he knew that he could depend upon an income, he was anxious to support himself. After he felt comfortable with his progress, he wrote his father from Paris: “I will never have to give up painting, for even now I could paint heads good enough to make a living anywhere in America. I hope not to be a drag upon you a great while longer.”
In addition to his studies with Gér’ôme, Eakins sometimes worked in the studio of the portrait sculptor Augustin Dumont and the painter Léon Bonnat. He also greatly admired the work of Thomas Couture, who had been Manet’s teacher (although Eakins seems not to have noticed Manet’s work at the time). In particular he was intrigued by Couture’s freely brushed technique, which was quite the opposite of the tight, almost invisible brushwork favored by Gér’ôme. Eakins felt that the evidence of painterly process in Couture’s pictures seemed true to the essential nature of the medium, and Couture’s influence is evident in some of his earliest independent paintings.
This interest in a more painterly technique deepened when Eakins went to Spain toward the end of his European sojourn. There he saw the works of Velázquez and Ribera, which he said embodied what he “always thought ought to have been done” in painting—“so strong so reasonable so free from every affectation.” Velázquez in particular seemed to have achieved a unity of subject and technique that would become one of Eakins’s own main goals.
He returned to Philadelphia in the early summer of 1870 and only a few months later painted his first masterpiece, The Champion Single Sculls , better known as Max Schmitt in a Single Scull . Schmitt was a friend who had won the first Schuylkill Navy Single Scull Championship, and Eakins had followed his amateur racing career all the time he was in Paris. In October 1870 he was able to witness at first hand Schmitt’s finest triumph, when he recaptured the championship in an unprecedented four-boat race. Eakins commemorated the victory with a portrait of Schmitt seated in his winning scull, Josie .
Eakins is not a painter, he is a force,” Walt Whitman said.
In the background of the painting there are other rowers, and among them Eakins looks out toward the viewer. Single scull racing was highly esteemed at the time for combining physical strength with mental discipline and for cultivating a highly refined technique—attributes similar to those necessary for artistic success. The single scull racer was, after all, completely on his own: He provided both his own power and his own steering, and like an artist, he was entirely responsible for the success or failure of his undertaking.
In 1875, when Eakins had been working on his own for only five years, he received the commission for his largest and most ambitious painting to date, a portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross, one of America’s leading surgeons and a teacher at the Jefferson Medical College, where Eakins was again studying anatomy.