The Photographs of Thomas Eakins
Some half century ago the grand exhibition of Thomas Eakins’s paintings at the Metropolitan Museum in November, 1917, gave America its first opportunity to take the measure of his art. Though William C. Brownell in an earlier report in Scribner’s Magazine had opened the way, this belated showing of his work, prompted by his death the year before, came after thirty years of ostracism and neglect.
On a superficial view, Eakins’s paintings belong to the solid but more conventional art of the nineteenth century, at a time when Henry James confessed that as a young man he was equally taken by Delacroix and Paul Delaroche. If one sees Eakins’s paintings in a wider perspective, his art lies in the line of Velázquez, Ribera, and the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century. Certainly by 1917 the odds were against a fresh appreciation of his achievement. Were his paintings anything but the autumnal flowers of a vanishing tradition? Anyone who had gone drunk on the colors of the impressionists, who had responded to Cézanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, or had been jarred by the electronic music of the cubists, could hardly regard Eakins’s somber realism as anything but a well-preserved memento of a past that held no conceivable future. Had not the futurists begun to proclaim that art itself was dead? And if not, would not the photograph prove a sufficient substitute for Eakins’s kind of painting?
But history, happily for our descendants, plays tricks on the futurologists. Already the younger generation has gone back yearningly to Ruskin and Carlyle, to Mozart and Tchaikovsky, to the Pre-Raphaelites and to more trivial sentimental art. Overnight the adjective “romantic” has changed from an epithet of abuse to one of admiration. Sometimes these upsets turn out perversely: witness the nervously fashionable museum directors who have been hauling out of dead storage the more massive mediocrities of the Victorian age, whose wall-filling canvasses put them on a par with the equally empty wall-fillers lately favored by Madison Avenue.
Eakins can make no appeal to this kind of revivalism; and the fact that he studied the movements of horses more systematically than did Rosa Bonheur or Meissonnier does not give him a place in the same gallery. Eakins’s animated, highly disciplined intelligence unites him to an older line of artists that stems back to Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, Giovanni della Porta: the tradition they helped establish in the exploration of the visible world still belongs as much to the future as to the past. With a few exceptions like Ryder and Emily Dickinson, our most original American artists—John and Washington Roebling, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman—shared Eakins’s resolute faith in “science” and “democracy.” They used the materials and the techniques of their “materialistic” age to express something that transcended the values of that age. “There is no more need for romances,” Whitman declared, “let facts and history be properly told.” Those words might have been uttered by Eakins …
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Eakins’s Exposure November 16, 1972