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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
But this was not an isolated incident; other women who had studied with Eakins had made similar accusations. And although most of these seem to be linked to the image of libertinism that Eakins’s personal life suggested to his contemporaries, and to the undeniable physicality and sensuality of his paintings, it is difficult to determine exactly where fantasy ends and fact begins. Eakins seems to have been a very sensual man, and his paintings exude a powerful feeling of repressed or sublimated sexuality. But whether his pictures were the sole outlet for his strong erotic energy is hard to say. Even his domestic arrangements became surprisingly ambiguous when in 1900 he and his wife invited Eakins’s childhood friend and sometime model Mary Adeline Williams to share their home. Although Eakins left Addie Williams a share in his estate and one of his nephews told a biographer that “of course, Uncle Tom made love to Addie Williams,” the precise nature of their relationship, like so much else in Eakins’s life, remains unknown.
During his last years Eakins was increasingly drawn to portraiture, and here again he brought to his subjects an intense and uncompromising straightforwardness. Few of these paintings are flattering in the usual sense, but many are penetrating studies in character. Especially in his portraits of women, Eakins is able to suggest the vulnerability and transience of the material world that so engaged his attention.
This is movingly apparent in the portraits he did of his wife and of Addie Williams shortly after Addie joined the household. So deep is the tenderness expressed in Addie’s portrait that it has been cited by one of Eakins’s biographers as evidence of “a love that neither of them probably ever doubted, but that must have taken curious turns upon occasion.”
By 1910 Eakins’s poor health and failing eyesight made it increasingly difficult for him to work. And although in 1914 the Philadelphia collector Albert Barnes bought an oil study of Dr. Agnew for five thousand dollars—well over twice the amount paid for any of Eakins’s other paintings in his lifetime—the aging artist was able to sell only three other pictures during the last three years of his life, all for moderate prices. As Fairfield Porter has noted, echoing Whitman, Eakins “was rejected in his life time because society could not forgive him for accepting it as it was, instead of offering it a picture of something better.”
Eakins died on June 25, 1916, exactly one month before his seventy-second birthday. Pragmatic and skeptical to the end, he had requested that he be cremated without any religious service and that no flowers be sent. His ashes were brought back to the house at 1729 Mount Vernon Street, which he was as reluctant to leave after death as he had been during his life.
Now, some seventy-five years after his death, Eakins remains in large measure defined as much by shadows as by light—somewhat like the subject of one of his own portraits. What stays in darkness provides a resonant background to what is knowable, but even what is knowable is fraught with contradictions. Throughout his life Eakins was a curious mixture of earnest innocent and daredevil exhibitionist, selfless seeker after truth and ferocious egotist.
The mysteries that surround his personal life are the sort that no amount of documentation can really explain, but they nonetheless are at the very core of Eakins’s endeavor as an artist. In fact, even his technique begins to seem part of a complex conflict between expression and suppression. The tension between his technical decorum and the underlying emotional intensity that often seems on the verge of erupting through it becomes a telling metaphor for the mysterious, obdurate, and conflicted nature of the man.