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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
In a letter to the academy’s chairman of the Committee on Instruction, Eakins defended himself by comparing the artist to a doctor: “A man could easily be accused of lewdness, and his actions be truthfully described in fearful terms; yet if the explanation were once listened to that he was an obstetric physician practicing his calling he might rest blameless. … So the figure painter may be accorded privileges not allowed to the rabble, and must be if his work is to be worthy.” In another letter Eakins wrote: “My figures at least are not a bunch of clothes with a head & hands sticking out but more nearly resemble the strong living body’s. …”
Even more hurtful to him than his dismissal from the Pennsylvania Academy was the effort to drive him from the Philadelphia Sketch Club, of which he was an honorary member. This campaign was undertaken largely at the instigation of Stephens, who, as Eakins wrote at the time, wanted to force him “out of the Academy, the Philadelphia Sketch Club, and the Academy Art Club, and … out of the city.”
The Sketch Club charged Eakins with “conduct unworthy of a gentleman and discreditable to this organization,” and the membership voted to expel him and have “his name erased from the Club roll,” even though no specific accusations were ever made public, or any evidence given. At the time that Stephens was leading the attacks against Eakins, he and his pregnant wife were living with Eakins’s father in the Mount Vernon Street house. Stephens, who had turned the artist’s sister against him, apparently spread rumors that Eakins paraded nude before women, accused him of depravity, and even questioned the legality of his marriage. During this trying period Benjamin Eakins came to his son’s support. He asked his daughter and her husband to leave his home and invited Eakins and his wife to move back to the family hearth. And the artist, for all his strong-willed independence, gladly did so.
Like his work, Eakins remains defined as much by shadow as by light .
It was shortly after these traumatic events that Eakins met Walt Whitman. The two men may well have felt a strong natural sympathy as outcasts condemned for their unconventional social and sexual views; in any case they took an instant liking to each other. Whitman also liked the portrait that Eakins did of him. “I never knew of but one artist,” he said, “and that’s Tom Eakins, who could resist the temptation to see what they think ought to be rather than what is.”
After he left the Pennsylvania Academy, Eakins was asked to teach—without salary—a group of protesting students who organized the Art Students League of Philadelphia. It was there that he met Samuel Murray, who would serve as his assistant and loyal disciple—indeed, as a kind of surrogate son to the childless artist—for the rest of his life. In order to supplement his income, Eakins taught in various places and took on a number of commissioned portraits.
These included the 1889 portrait of Dr. D. Hayes Agnew, known as The Agnew Clinic , for which he was paid $750, raised by subscription among the students at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine. In contrast with the dramatic Gross Clinic , this painting emphasizes the modern, more hygienic setting that had become common for surgery during the preceding decade. The lighting is brighter, the participants are wearing white surgical robes, and there is a nurse present. Although the tone of the painting is calmer than in The Gross Clinic , Eakins was severely criticized for the “scandalous” choice of breast surgery as the subject. “They call me a butcher,” he told a friend with tears in his eyes, “and all I was trying to do was to picture the soul of a great surgeon.”
The exhibition history of The Agnew Clinic resembles that of its predecessor. In 1891 the directors of the Pennsylvania Academy refused to show the painting in its annual exhibition, despite a previous invitation by the artists’ jury. The following year the Society of American Artists in New York also refused to hang it, prompting Eakins’s resignation from that organization.
In 1897 his eldest niece, Ella Crowell, who had studied with him, killed herself. The Crowell family accused Eakins of improprieties with Ella, even suggesting he may have seduced her. Although the record of letters and statements is complex and contradictory, it seems fairly certain that any sexual activity between Ella and her uncle was a product of the poor girl’s disturbed imagination. Her family’s accusations of misconduct were not made until many years later, and Ella herself remained friendly with her uncle until the end of her troubled life.