Carter B. Horsley
Eakins (1844-1916) was one of America's greatest artists, obdurately
fascinated with character and clarity.
is best known for his engrossing portraits, such as "The
Gross Clinic" and "The Agnew Clinic," and for his
luminous paintings of scullers on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.
He is also famed for being one of the first American painters
to embrace photography and he collaborated with Edward Muybridge
in studying the movement of animals and humans.
much of his painted oeuvre is devoted to somber and uncompromising
portraits that are very impressive, but not too exciting to the
general public. Eakins, indeed, was a very serious artist and
would become known as the American Rembrandt, a comparison not
unfounded for there is great profundity in his work as well as
originality and a powerful compositional sense.
a time when portraiture was primarily concerned with flattering
depictions of the upper classes and Impressionistic styles of
considerable bravura, Eakins chose a more realistic approach that
reflected scientific interests. During his lifetime, however,
he only sold about 30 of his works.
produced about three dozen great paintings during his long career
that was marked by controversy over his use of nude models.
Many of his finest works are sporting subjects of scullers, wrestlers,
boxers, baseball players, hunters, and fishermen, and many of
these and were done early in his career and brought him considerable
fame at the time, but he spent much of his later career doing
portraits that were often neither flattering nor fashionable and
his reputation waned for decades.
is intriguing because he was clearly capable of becoming the nation’s
premier artist but his eccentricities led him down other less
popular paths especially as contemporaries such as Whistler and
William Merritt Chase and Sargent became famous for their bravura
styles in dramatic contrast to his meticulous precision.
his catalogue essay, “Thomas Eakins and American Art,”
Darrel Sewell, the Robert L. McNeil Jr. Curator of American Art
at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, makes the following observation:
moody portraits of middle-class individuals were not easily marketed
as works of art. Although some of them, such as his own
self-portrait…are painted with beautiful technique, Eakins’s
ordinary people may have reminded his urban audience too keenly
of their own origins or states of mind. In contrast, Winslow
Homer (1936-1910), allowed city dwellers to escape from their
surroundings by imagining themselves in rugged landscapes, triumphing
over the elemental forces of nature.”
is America’s greatest artist because he was best illustrator
of the Civil War, a major impressionist painter before the French,
a powerful marine painter, a great genre painter, and perhaps
the greatest watercolorist of all time. Moreover, his oeuvre
abounds with hundreds of masterpieces.
his June 21, 2002 review of this exhibition for The New York
Times, Michael Kimmelman declared that Eakins “painted,
hands down, the finest 19th Century American painting, ‘The
Gross Clinic,’ which, by itself, justifies leaving your home
right now and visiting the Met, and which is a good place to start
thinking about Eakins’s large but somewhat peculiar achievement.”
his June 24, 2002 review of the exhibition in The New York
Observer, Hilton Kramer states that Eakins and Henry James
(1843-1916) were “the greatest artists of that American generation
in their respective fields of endeavor,” adding that “Both
were pioneer artists of the Realist school whose work encountered
dispiriting opposition from a philistine public. In the
pursuit of their artistic vacations, however, both enjoyed the
unwavering support of exceptionally liberal fathers. Both
devoted some of their finest works to the depiction of women,
yet in the lives of both there is a current of homoerotic sentiment
that is unmistakable. In the end, both died doubting thath
their greatest achievements would ever win the recognition they
Gross Clinic” is Eakins’s most famous work, a very bold
and dramatic painting depicting Dr. Samuel David Gross working
in the surgery amphitheater of the Jefferson Medical College of
the Thomas Jefferson University in Philadephia where Eakins studied
anatomy. The doctor is highlighted in the center of the
picture standing beside his assistants who are exposing a patient’s
leg cut open while a woman in block raises her clenched hand to
her face on the other side of the doctor. The doctor’s
shock of white hair and the woman’s clenched hand virtually
“jump” out of the picture while the deeply shaded background
reveals on-looking students of the operation in this “clinic.”
Eakins was 30 years old when he painted this large picture, which
is in the college’s collection.
doctor’s face and the woman’s hand are wonderfully done
but what is rather remarkable is the top half of the picture which
is very darkly gray with barely discernible figures of the students.
initial reaction is that this part of the painting is not finished,
only roughed in, for even if the amphitheater’s lighting
was minimal one would assume there would be some darker shadows,
especially when one contrasts it with Eakin’s other famous
“medical” painting, “The Agnew Clinic” in
the collection of the University of Pennsylvania, in which the
students watching Dr. D. Hayes Agnew and his assistants perform
a mastectomy are show in much more well-lit conditions, although
the faces of the students are not terribly well done. Indeed,
the students in the “Agnew” painting form a fascinating,
horizontal composition with their heads angled in many directions.
“The Agnew Clinic” was executed in 1889, 14 years after
“The Gross Clinic” and the two works are very different
and one could argue that “The Agnew Clinic” is the better
work conceptually although there is no denying that the figure
of Dr. Gross is dazzling and mesmerizing. Both works exemplify
seriousness of purpose, highlight the doctors and are boldly realistic
clinically, but “The Agnew Clinic” is in a horizontal
format as opposed to the more conventional vertical format of
the “The Gross Clinic” and is a much more complex and
two, large "clinic" pictures are ambitious and certainly
manifest a profound respect for the wonders of medicine, the role
of the teacher and teaching institutions, and the tenuousness
of life. It is therefore something of a shock to confront his
fabulous pictures of scullers on the Schuylkill River for they
are as electric as the best landscapes of Frederic E. Church and
Albert Bierstadt are grandiloquent. The most immediate comparison
for the sculling pictures would be the serene "luminous"
coastal pictures of John F. Kensett and Fitz Hugh Lane, but Eakins'
pictures bristle while Kensett's and Lane's calm. Eakins' technical
skills in capturing brilliant light is unsurpassed.
tend to focus on Eakins’s sensitive and somewhat melancholic
portraits and his independence from contemporary artistic trends.
While it is true that he remained steadfastly true to the realistic
styles he studied under Jean-Léon Gerome, the Parisian
academician, and later Léon Bonnat, and that he was not
significantly influenced by the preceding generation of Hudson
River School painters in America, or French Impressionism, this
ignores his incredible handling of light in his sculling pictures,
which are brilliantly “luminous” and perhaps should
be included among the major works of “Luminism,” a style
of landscape painting that evolved out of the Hudson River School
and is closely identified with many of the works of such artists
as Fitz Hugh Lane, John F. Kensett, and Sanford R. Gifford.
Schmitt in a Single Scull,” oil on canvas, 32 ½ by
46 ¼ inches, 1871, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase,
The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Fund and George D. Pratt Gift,
1934, shown above, and “Starting Out After Rail,” oil
on canvas mounted on masonite, 24 ¼ by 19 7/8 inches, 1974,
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection, shown at the
top of this article, well demonstrate Eakins's luminism. "Starting
Out After Rail" is the cover illustration of the exhibition's
superb and large catalogue.
of Eakins’s other “outdoor” works, such as “Mending
the Net,” (1881, oil on canvas, 32 1/8 by 45 1/8 inches,
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss
Mary Adeline Williams, 1929), shown above, and “Shad Fishing at Gloucester
on the Delaware River,” (also 1881 and also Philadelphia
Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss Mary Adeline
in fact are lovely blends of “luminism” and “Tonalism,”
another landscape style that was much softer and is typified by
the later landscape works of George Inness and are also related
to the poetic and lyrical pastoral figurative works of Thomas
Wilmer Dewing, contemporaries of Eakins. These Eakins landscapes,
of course, are not Tonalist works for they have his marvelous
precision and eye for detail that are not present in the “Tonalist”
and Whistlerian styles.
it appears, was not much concerned with style per se and was not
hesitant to experiment and change course and direction, which,
of course, confuses the public and critics, alike. There
is, of course, a consistent sensibility about his works, an intense
awareness of intimate observation and a closeness to subject.
Nothing is casual about Eakins. His many photographs of
nudes are proud proclamations of the human body and there is a
definite streak of independence and rebellion in the amount of
attention he gave to nudity.
is interesting to note that one of his other major works, “William
Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River,”
(1876-7, oil on canvas, 20 1/8 by 26 1/8 inches, The Philadelphia
Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss Mary Adeline
Williams, 1929) is very similar to "The Gross Clinic"
in its bold highlighting of the standing female nude figure and
the obscured details of the background of the artist's studio
as well as the deployment of yet another seated woman beside the
main figure. The nude and her pile of clothes on the chair are
exquisitely rendered and one suspects that Eakins was showing
off a bit for one can see a tiny sliver of light on the front
of the nude's right thigh if one looks closely enough. Again Eakins
has chosen to leave the background in much less detail to highlight
what he wants the viewer to focus on, leading one to think that
perhaps he was making exclamation points of his highlights to
prove he could execute flawlessly and that was enough, a rather
daring approach for not all collectors are happy with paintings
that at first glance seem unfinished....(Mary Cassatt's best works,
in this reviewer's opinion, are some her large sketches and these
type of works of art take the viewer into the creative act of
when an artist finds satisfaction and can stop.)
of his most celebrated drawings is a "Study of Seated Nude
Woman Wearing a Mask," a 1863-6 charcoal on paper, 24 1/4
by 18 5/8 inches in the Philadelphia Museum of art. Mr. Sewell
notes in his essay that in this work "Eakins achieved an
expressiveness rare in academic figure drawing and unequaled in
American art until this time,” adding that “The intensely
studied, boldly drawn, fleshy woman, wearing a large mask tied
so tightly across her face that it constitutes a blindfold, provides
a wide range of responses and speculations.” “Perhaps
even at this early point in his career, Eakins was considering
the shock value of the nude figure, carefully manipulating an
ostensibly realistic study to create dramatic effects as he did
1869, Eakins went to Spain where he found “The Fable of Arachne
(The Spinners),” by Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez
at the Prado Museum in Madrid to be “the finest piece of
painting” he had “ever seen.” The 1657 Velázquez
painting that Eakins called “The Tapestry Weaver” appealed
to him, Mr. Sewell noted, because “the artist’s method
of defining the mass of the main figure before indicating her
features.” “I think Ribera and Rembrandt,”
Sewell quoted Eakins, “proceeded in the same way, the only
[method], in my opinion, that can give both delicacy and strength
at the same time….As soon as my things [that is, my preliminary
arrangements] are in place, I shall aggressively seek my broad
effect from the very beginning..”
aim, it seems, was to recombine the best aspects of the French
academic and Spanish Baroque traditions,” Mr. Sewell wrote,
“to unite composition and ‘broad effect,’ careful
structure and tactile surface, much as Bonnat had done….
Sewell then provides the following quotation from Eakins:
must resolve never to paint in the manner of my master [Gérôme]….One
can hardly expect to be stronger than he, and he is far from painting
like the Ribera or the Velasquez works, although he is as strong
as any painter of polished surfaces….The Weaver of Velasquez,
although having much impasto, has no roughness at all to catch
the light….So, paint as heavily as I like, but never leave
any roughness. The things of Velasquez are almost made to
slide on….Velasquez does a lot of glazing with quite transparent
color in the shade areas, but it is very solidly painted underneath.”
a very fine watercolorist and several watercolors of women at
the spinning wheel are including in the exhibition as well as
“The Dancing Lesson (Negro Boy Dancing,” 1879, The Metropolitna
Museum of Art.
many of the portraits are pensive, some standout sensationally
such as "Portrait of mary Adeline Williams," shown above,
in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins
and Miss Williams, and "An Actress (Portrait of Suzanne Santje),"
shown below, also in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
couple of Eakins portraits have very unusual frames designed by
the artist such as "Portrait of Professor Henry A. Rowland,"
which in the collection of the Addison Gallery of American Art
at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., shown below. One wishes
Eakins had done more such specific frames for his portraits as
they are very interesting and impressive.
exhibition, which includes about 60 paintings and about 120 photographs,
is sponsored by Fleet. It is the first major exhibition
on the artist since 1982 when the Philadelphia Museum of Art held
a show on Eakins that also was shown at the Museum of Fine Arts
catalogue is published by the museum and the Yale University
Press and is available from amazon.com for 30 percent off its
$49.95 list price.