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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 was committed to working from the live nude model—a practice that formed the basis of his teaching at the academy. But this painting goes even further, suggesting that ideally the artist should work not from professional models but from people he knows. One of the picture’s implications—clearly affirmed by the knitting woman who serves as chaperone—is that Vanuxem’s enlightened family has given its approval for her to pose for Rush. In fact, the composition and lighting suggest that the painting’s main subject is neither Rush nor his sculpture but the model.
Significantly the sculpture Rush is carving is not of a nude (nor did Louisa Vanuxem really pose nude), a discrepancy that heightens the allegorical quality of the painting. As he is depicted in this picture—well dressed rather than clothed in craftsman’s garb—Rush seems to serve as alter ego for Eakins himself, a kind of fictional counterpart through which the painter can state his ideas about nature and art, nakedness and truth, and the artist’s place within proper, respectable society.
He felt the artist must work not from models but from people he knows .
Some thirty years later, in 1908, Eakins returned to the Rush theme again. In the striking and mysterious painting called William Rush and His Model , the artist, mallet in hand, escorts the nude model from the modeling stand with a great show of courtesy, as if he were helping her down from a coach, and he looks nothing like Eakins’s other representations of William Rush. Indeed, the girth and bearing of the carver, whose head is turned discreetly away from us so that we cannot identify him exactly, bear a striking resemblance to Eakins himself.
Like The Gross Clinic, William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River was seen by the public as a violation of artistic decorum. The New York Times was particularly critical of the woman’s clothing on the chair in the foreground; it gave a “shock which makes one think about the nudity—and at once the picture becomes improper!”
During the early 1880s a number of drastic changes overtook Eakins. In 1879 his fiancée died, and three years later his beloved sister Maggie followed her to the grave. Eakins threw a great deal of energy into a plan for reorganizing the Pennsylvania Academy School (and was promised that his salary would be doubled). In 1884 he married one of his former students, Susan Hannah Macdowell, and moved from the Mount Vernon Street house to a studio at 1330 Chestnut Street. The next year he began to lecture on anatomy at the Art Students League of New York. All these activities took time away from his painting, but he nonetheless managed to create one of his most elaborate figure compositions, The Swimming Hole .
And then, at the beginning of February 1886, a thunderbolt struck when Eakins removed the loincloth from a male model in a women’s life class. On February 8 the directors of the academy asked him to resign, and on the next day he did so. The dismissal was precipitated by the nudity of the model, but other factors were involved. The academy’s directors, mostly businessmen also closely watched the bottom line, were troubled because the school was running in the red, and they were reluctant to make good on their promise of doubling Eakins’s salary.
Moreover, for some years there had been considerable resistance to Eakins’s teaching methods. A number of the less dedicated students were appalled by the rigorous study of anatomy that he required, including the dissection of cadavers, and by the exacting exercises in perspective he imposed upon them. Other students complained that the course of study was too narrow and restricted. Indeed, Eakins, who had almost no interest in aesthetic theory, showed little enthusiasm for courses in art history, aesthetics, or composition. Nor were there classes in such highly popular subjects as outdoor sketching and illustration. In brief, Eakins enforced upon his students his own methods and his own severe code of artistic ethics—and in a rather overbearing way.
Chief among the discontented was Eakins’s former student, and now brother-in-law, George Frank Stephens, who became the leader of the forces against him. In fact, Stephens became somewhat mad on the subject of his former teacher and engaged in shameless backstabbing. Eakins’s lack of “parlor manners” was widely perceived as rudeness and led to rumors. At least one woman who had posed nude for him accused him, retrospectively, of improprieties. Given his forthright advocacy of “amateur” nude models and his practice of having his female students model nude for him and for one another, innuendos about his sexual life abounded.