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Thomas Eakins, Painter and Moralist

The Photographs of Thomas Eakins

by Gordon Hendricks
Grossman, 214, 291 illustrations pp., $30.00

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.

This collection of The Photographs of Thomas Eakins, assembled by Gordon Hendricks, has come out at the same time as a compendious survey of The Painter and the Photograph by Professor Van Deren Coke;* and taken together these two books bring up for further examination not only the special metaphysical and scientific problems related to nineteenth-century art but even older aesthetic problems, many, perhaps, never to be finally resolved by reference to any single period or culture, about the relation of art to life. If Eakins has often been too glibly dismissed as a photographic realist, those who do so have plainly thought of photography as a chance by-product of optical and chemical experiments and have forgotten that these experiments were first made by painters working in their traditional media long before the necessary scientific information and mechanical contrivances were invented. One need not wonder, as Professor Coke demonstrates, that so many artists from Delacroix onward took to photography as a source of information and graphic suggestion—but as an efficient helper, not a dangerous rival. Photography was from the beginning the painters’ baby.

The artists who were emotionally in tune with the new world of science were quite as fertile in mechanical invention as their more utilitarian brothers in the workshop or the factory, for art and technics had still not split apart. It was a successful portrait painter who invented the steamboat, and another who invented the electric telegraph, while one of the greatest exponents of photographic portraiture, David Octavius Hill, first took to photography to facilitate his painting of a huge group assemblage of theologians, to produce a painting that now has no value except as an historic document. Eakins’s photographic realism was well established in Dr. Gross’s Clinic (1874), three years before he began to make photographs. (That was the year, incidentally, when he met Hannah Susan MacDowell, who was to become his wife.) Eakins’s photographs, placed alongside his oils, disclose the specific qualities and limitations of both arts, as well as the common ideology to which in the nineteenth century they both conformed.

The pictures in Hendricks’s book, mostly taken by Eakins, form an almost random collection, and part of its usefulness as history comes from the fact that it is nonselective, a product of domestic accident—just those plates and prints that once captured his interest and that somehow escaped the rubbish heap. The aesthetic value of these pictures is often extremely limited, hardly worth a second glance; even the subject matter is often without any more interest to an outsider than similar prints in ten thousand other collections of family photographs. If we are defining photography as an art, this end of the realist spectrum comes close to non-art: the results belong to the camera, not to the artist. And one cannot fix the blame for this on the old-fashioned camera and plates, for from the beginning masterpieces were occasionally created by the same imperfect means.

During the decade when Eakins explored photography he did, however, produce a few remarkable prints, particularly portraits, so close in quality to his best pictures that one almost wonders in what museum the original oil now exists, or why one has never seen it before. Perhaps the outstanding example here is No. 20, a picture of his mother-in-law. In its strong natural lighting, its unusually tactile background, its tender gravity, it has the true Eakins touch. Yet sometimes the photograph presented an image that Eakins, alas! did not care to carry further in oil. In quite another Eakins vein is the print of a row of sailboats beached on the sands of the Delaware River, with softly ominous clouds in the right-hand corner providing a contrast that only an artist would have juxtaposed to the sharp white sails. This powerful abstraction reproaches Eakins for not having turned it into a painting.

At the other extreme, less because of their aesthetic than their human quality, are the photos of Walt Whitman taken shortly before his death: no longer the genial but softly overripe face Eakins had painted only a little while before in an uncharacteristically impressionist manner, but now pathetically weak, bewildered, indrawn. Here in these final moments Eakins touched the tragic sense of life, as he might have if King Lear had sat for him. Those sad images disclose, as if in anticipation, a similar transformation that Eakins’s own face would reveal in the series of photographs that other people, including one of his closest students, would make of him.

Not the least interesting aspect of this whole collection are the hints and unconscious disclosures about Eakins’s own life; alike about his intellectual background, his unswerving devotion to art, and his own emotional and erotic relations, in or out of marriage. There are few happy faces in Eakins’s own gallery of portraits; even the young, even the students horsing about naked before the camera, are singularly without joy. But there are no grimacing candid camera shots either; every portrait, whether of himself or some other character, is a chapter in Eakins’s autobiography, a kind of double exposure of his mind.

Yet as soon as one places Eakins’s photographs alongside some of his lesser paintings of the same subject—say, The Swimming Hole—one has to ask aesthetic questions that do not admit of an easy answer. Apart from color and the subtleties of tone derived from color, do Eakins’s paintings convey anything that a photograph does not? Is the value of the painting reduced by its photographic realism or are the photographs enhanced by their resemblance to formalized painting?

It is easier to say no to the second question than to the first. One might give a more confident answer if one could forget that the Greeks of the fourth century, whose creativity is attested by their buildings and sculptures, praised a painting by Apelles because the grapes looked so real that the birds pecked at them. Yet in Eakins’s best photographs his mind was at work in the same fashion as in his paintings; no doubt of that. The resemblances are not accidental. In both cases whatever sprang ultimately from his subjective reactions was expressed through the visible contents alone. But if Eakins had been wholly satisfied with photography, he would not have abandoned this mode of representing nature: he would rather have carried it further, as his younger contemporary Alfred Stieglitz resolutely did in singling out “unpaintable” images. Instead, many of Eakins’s greatest paintings were done in the last dozen years of his life, and they testify to something that cannot be recorded by purely mechanical means: his integrity, his composure, his moral resolution.

There is however one point where Eakins’s photographs give hints about his life which are unanswered as yet in any surviving account, and possibly will never be satisfactorily answered at all. Perhaps the most enigmatic of Eakins’s pictures—this is equally true of the photographs and the oils—are those in the “Arcadia” series. Besides the naked athletes and pseudo fauns blowing Panpipes this series includes photographs of feminine models in flowing Greek costumes, sometimes posed alongside Greek plaster casts, though Eakins despised such casts. Nothing indeed could seem more remote from Eakins’s principles than this fake classic costume art. Was Eakins saying in these pictures that he wanted most the sort of freedom in presenting the human body that the Greeks enjoyed in Plato’s time when even girls stripped for taking part in public games? Or was he attempting to release his imagination from the fetters of scientific exactitude and “objective” representation in order to give his own repressed emotional impulses fuller play?

Something besides the conventions of his day seems to have held Eakins in check. Master that he was of his craft, swift and sure as a limner, there were subjective realms that he dared not enter, except by the back door, though they were open to near contemporaries like Delacroix who were less under the spell of the “objective” world that advanced minds in the nineteenth century still mistook, in its seeming solidity and its public accessibility, for authentic reality. It is no accident that Eakins felt close to the surgeons and physicists of his generation; but he forgot, unfortunately, that the displacement of feeling and emotion is the proper psychology only for an operating table or a physics laboratory; yet even in the latter milieu it may rob the mind of necessary energies.

In seeking an answer to this enigma one is haunted by Eakins’s own sober face, from early manhood to the brink of death: grave, self-contained, desperate, increasingly tragic; but whether from disappointment in his professional career or from some deeper miscarriage in his life one dare not, without some further evidence, even guess. That Eakins had faith enough to keep on with his painting despite lack of public response demonstrates his great vital reserves; in some degree this offset his emotional inhibitions. Whatever these portrait studies meant to Eakins himself, they come before us as teasingly disjointed fragments of an Eakins biography, which unfortunately may never be satisfactorily put together. Mr. Lloyd Goodrich made a beginning of that biography in his introduction to the exhibition of 1933, mainly from the evidence of Eakins’s written lectures, his letters, the testimony of his pupils; and the compiler of this book of photographs has added a few touches that tell about the workings of Eakins’s mind.

Possibly the main clue to Eakins comes from the central place occupied by the human body in his teaching. Nakedness for Eakins embodied a moral principle: in art as in science, nothing was ugly, nothing obscene, nothing was insignificant that came under the discipline of truth. Like Whitman, Eakins celebrated the body, if not the “body electric.” There was nothing soft, still less lyrical, in this celebration. Eakins took on the ordeal of anatomical dissection as a necessary part of the painter’s craft, in order to know what went on from the inside to mold any posture he might paint, and indicate the pressures and tensions.

In his life classes, Eakins used both male and female nudes as models. But one of his innovations, which helped cause his dismissal from the Pennsylvania Academy, came from his revolt against the practice of employing only prostitutes as models. Since Eakins properly regarded this association of nudity with purchasable sex as disgraceful, he persuaded a few of his girl students, with the consent of their mothers, to shuck their clothes and serve as models. But one day when a girl emerged in the nude with a bracelet still on her arm, Eakins was so furious that he tore it off and threw it on the floor. That incident delighted Whitman. “It was just like Eakins,” Whitman said, “and oh! a great point in it, too.”

In 1886 came Eakins’s final break with respectability. In a female life class, in order to illustrate the muscular attachment to the pelvis, Eakins stripped off the male model’s G-string and exposed his genitals. For a sexually hair-raising generation like the present one, the shudder and shock of that single act upon Eakins’s contemporaries are almost unimaginable; yet the fact that he committed such a defiant act can hardly be attributed solely to absent-minded absorption in his anatomical demonstration. For Eakins this was not a meaningless exposure: it was, I feel sure, a morally significant act in the service of scientific verity. At all events, this was the final offense that brought about his departure from the teaching staff of the Pennsylvania Academy and put him permanently out of favor with the Philadelphia Establishment.

That confrontation with the whited sepulchers of conventional morality was disturbing enough to Eakins to prompt him to restore his inner balance and peace by a vacation on a Dakota ranch; but it had no effect on his work. Though one can hardly suppose that Eakins did not recognize his own interest in the nude as an integral expression of sex, he kept in his painting all too strictly to the inhibiting Victorian mores. Unlike Turner, he seems to have left behind no erotic sketches for a latter-day Ruskin to destroy. Yet one cannot forget that he had fallen from grace by his own standards in the Arcadian series, for what was a Panpipe but a more odious kind of bracelet? And it was only at the end of his life, when he depicted a naked girl posing for Benjamin Rush, that for the first time he showed his model from a frontal view. Part of Eakins’s own power as a painter may derive from this pent-up reservoir of eroticism. Had he found an outlet he might have vied with Rubens, Goya, or Renoir.

Perhaps the most telling impression left by Eakins’s photographs and his paintings is that there is more in them than meets the eye. Eager though he was to follow through the experiments of Marey or Muybridge that led to the motion picture, these pictures of animal motion did not lead to any new dynamism in Eakins’s designs. For all that he learned about the kinetics of the body, he made far less of this knowledge than did Tintoretto, whose superb intuitive representations of motion and flight anticipated the technical achievements of the nineteenth century. The portraits that crowned Eakins’s life as a painter have the composure of an Egyptian statue. So much for his “photographic realism.”

What comes out of Eakins’s work is what comes out of his life: a sense of his inviolable integrity. If his paintings had no fresh aesthetic value in themselves, they would still give him a special place as a moral guide, teaching those lost in paranoid obsessions and vacuous fantasies the human dignities of craftsmanship, responsibility, self-respect. Like Cézanne, Eakins had a small private income and a house to live in: sufficient for a sparse, thrifty life, no more. By this happy accident Eakins was entirely free from the current obsession with money, power, and immediate fame. The series of portraits he produced beginning with Dr. Gross’s Clinic were not done on commission and were not sold. By their unflinching honesty of characterization they did not tempt the subject to offer even a modest sum for their private acquisition. With one of the few portraits he painted on commission, for a millionaire, the unscrupulous sitter, when he saw the result, sought to crawl out of paying for it. So Eakins’s paintings piled up in his studio, unpublicized, largely unvisited.

Eakins’s value for the emerging generation comes not so much from his aesthetic achievements as from his moral qualities, though the two are inseparable, since his paintings constitute a graphic biography. With unshakable resolution, Eakins painted his unsellable pictures for the honor of medicine, science, religion, art—or as people used to say, for the glory of God. Though his subjective life was so different from Ryder’s, Eakins’s work had the same integrity, the same indifference to pecuniary rewards, like the medieval sculptors who finished their carved figures even in obscure corners where the human eye would never see them. Eakins had no need for publicity or the adulatory patter and chatter that now erect an elaborate verbal screen to conceal the artist’s autistic withdrawal from reality. Whatever the restrictions of the scientific and aesthetic conventions that dominated Eakins’s art, his life and work have now a special contribution to make to a generation that, morally speaking, has reached the end of its rope.

Letters

Eakins’s Exposure November 16, 1972

  1. *

    University of New Mexico, 320 pp., 563 paired illustrations, $32.00.

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