The Ache in Eakins

Thomas Eakins:The Rowing Pictures 23-September 29, 1996; The Yale University Art Gallery, October 11, 1996-January 14, 1997; The Cleveland Museum of Art, February 15-May 15, 1997.

exhibition at the National Gallery, Washington, D. C., June, Catalog of the exhibition by Helen A. Cooper, with contributions by Martin A. Berger and Christina Currie and Amy B. Werbel
Yale University Press, 139 pp., $24.95

At times in his letters Thomas Eakins sounds as cranky and ingenuously Yankee as Ezra Pound. Writing to his father from Paris in 1868, the twenty-three-year-old art student proclaimed, “The big artist does not sit down monkey like & copy a coal scuttle or an ugly old woman like some Dutch painters have done nor a dungpile, but he keeps a sharp eye on Nature & steals her tools. He learns what she does with light the big tool & then color then form and appropriates them to his own use.” Perhaps “light the big tool & then color then form” is more like Hemingway. Eakins has the reformist impatience, in any case, of an American determined to make things new, to clear out the antique clutter. If he went to Greece to live, he goes on to his father,

I could not paint a Greek subject for my head would be full of classics the nasty besmeared wooden hard gloomy tragic figures of the great French school of the last few centuries & Ingres & the Greek letters I learned at the High School with old Heaverstick & my mud marks of the antique statues.

Yet he was in Paris, paradoxically, studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the class of Jean-Léon Gérôme, an aesthetically conservative painter of exotic tableaux in a painstaking literalist style. In Eakins’s letters to his father there is never an inkling that in these years (1866-1870) of his Parisian apprenticeship Impressionism is coming to birth, as Courbet and Manet challenged the marmoreal conventions of French academic painting; the young American’s account of the Exposition Universelle of 1867 does not mention the rejection of these two painters from the exposition, or the display of their works in a nearby building. He in fact mentions no art at the exposition, but waxes enthusiastic about the machinery, especially the American machinery—the locomotive (“I can’t tell you how mean the best English French and Belgian ones are alongside of it”), the soda water fountains, and the sewing machines (“No people will think of competing with the Americans for sewing machines”).

Eakins was enthusiastic about machinery and physical science to a degree that few artists since Da Vinci could match. In the Central High School of Philadelphia—a venerable institution with a curriculum and faculty comparable to that of many colleges—he scored better in science and mathematics than in history and English. The art course, which he pursued for four years, invariably receiving the grade of 100, included mechanical drawing and the study of perspective. A number of his mechanical drawings have been preserved; the 1993 Eakins retrospective exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution included, as its oldest item, his meticulous student Perspective of a Lathe (1860). The aesthetic theories he confided to his father are phrased in terms of manufacture, the “big” painter conceived as a manufacturer rivaling Nature, whose tools are stolen and methods imitated: “When they [the big artists] made an unnatural thing they made it as Nature would have made it had she made it and thus they are really closer to Nature than the coal scuttle men painters ever suspect.” The next sentence is pure Hemingway: “In a big picture you can see what o’clock it is afternoon or morning if it’s hot or cold winter or summer and what kind of people are there and what they are doing and why they are doing it.”

Eakins worked hard at the Ecole for Gérôme and his other masters, disapproving of the frivolous French students; after three years he felt, he wrote his father, “I am as strong as any of Gérôme’s pupils and I have nothing now to gain by remaining…. I am certain now of one thing that is to paint what I can see before me better than the namby pamby fashion painters.” He traveled to Spain, and at the Prado discovered Velásquez and Ribera. It was a revelation: “Now I have seen what I always thought ought to have been done & what did not seem to me impossible…. Spanish work [is] so good so strong so reasonable so free from every affectation. It stands out like nature itself…. It has given me more courage than anything else ever could.”

It is surprising, then, that upon returning to the bustling postwar United States in 1870, his head brimming with imperial intentions to be “big” and “strong,” Eakins should have turned to a subject as lightweight, so to speak, as sculling, hitherto confined to magazine art and Currier and Ives lithographs. Rowing—“scull” originally meant “oar” and came to signify “a racing shell propelled by one or two persons using sculls”—had become a professional sport in the English-speaking countries as well as a socially fashionable activity for young gentlemen. The Schuylkill River in Philadelphia was lined with the boathouses of rowing clubs, and Eakins, always a keen outdoorsman, belonged to a club, probably the same one, the Pennsylvania Barge Club, to which his boyhood friend Max Schmitt belonged. Schmitt in 1867 had won the first single-scull championship of the Schuylkill, and Eakins’s painting of him in his racing shell was hung at the Union League of Philadelphia for three days in 1871. Eakins followed this masterly canvas with three oils of the Biglin brothers, professional racers from New York, an oil and two watercolors of John Biglin alone, a painting of the Schreiber brothers rowing, and an oil of four rowers called Oarsmen on the Schuylkill (circa 1874).

All nine of these finished works, with a number of preliminary oil sketches and pencil studies of perspectives and details, are present in a show on view in the East Wing of the National Gallery until the end of September, accompanied by an attractively slim yet informative catalogue by Helen A. Cooper, with essays not only on the painter and the sport of rowing but on perspective (by Amy B. Werbel), microscopic analysis of Eakins’s paint layers (by Christina Currie), and concepts of Victorian manhood (by Martin A. Berger). With a thoroughness that Eakins would have admired, every extant scrap of his production relating to this rowing series has been assembled, from as far away as the Portland Museum of Art and as close at hand as Upperville, Virginia. Rowing—which offered the painter a curious opportunity to combine landscape, portraiture, and studies of the nearly nude body—preoccupied Eakins for over three years, and occasioned his first concerted effort to perform as a “big artist.”

The first effort (illustrated on this page) is perhaps the best; it is one of Eakins’s most-reproduced paintings. Max Schmitt glides at a gentle diagonal across the watery foreground, the two trailing oars held lightly in his left hand. In the middle background Eakins himself, in a boat lettered with his name and the date 1871, pulls vigorously away from the viewer, toward the far bank of the Schuylkill, which is crossed by several finely detailed bridges. The painting is startlingly fresh, cool, and bleak, from a young painter immersed for over three years in European influences. As Lloyd Goodrich says in his two-volume Thomas Eakins, “The light and atmosphere were those of America: clear air, strong sunlight, high remote sky, brown trees and grass—things Eakins had never seen in Gérôme’s class or in the Prado. There was no trace of a derived style. An original mind was dealing directly with actualities. The vision was photographically exact, crystal-clear.”1

Too clear, perhaps, or too indiscriminately clear; the linear precision of the iron bridges, the skimpily leafed trees on the left, and the shell and oars appear etched rather than emergent through an atmosphere, even on this dry sunny day of high cirrus. Passages of freer painting, especially the loosely daubed cattails and stone house on the left but also the very nice line of trees on the right, seem to violate the presiding spirit of mechanical drawing, of a rather relentless literalism that jibes with Schmitt’s glowering, intent facial expression. The river, tonally, does not recede, presenting the same lifeless gray-blue near and far, a depthless plane upon which Schmitt’s dragging oars inscribe parallel lines and Eakins’s oars, rising and falling, leave methodically spaced patches of disturbed water. The canvas is haunting—an evocation of the democracy’s idyllic, isolating spaciousness, present even in the midst of a great eastern city.

Eakins’s next rowing picture, The Pair-Oared Shell (1872), takes a more sculptural approach; the shell with its two occupants glides through the dark reflection of a massive pier whose shadow side divides the canvas verticallyin half. The low sunlight is such that it strikes the slender golden top of thecedar shell and the sparkling far side of the pier, while adding bright edges to the male figures. Two large perspective drawings are also displayed; they locate the craft on a precise receding grid and detail the pier stone by stone—though in the painting the seams of the masonry are all but swallowed in shade. The white sky and a dull green mass of trees are quite roughly painted, while the rippled water is worked out by means of an analysis of each ripple into threereflecting planes. In sum it looks much like brown corduroy.

Brown—as in Andrew Wyeth’s landscapes from this same southeastern Pennsylvania—dominates everything; in the overall dullness the most vivid details are the red outrigger rods that support the oars. The painting was heavily premeditated; Eakins confided how he “made a little boat out of a cigar box and rag figures, with red and white shirts…blue ribbons around the head, and I put them out into the sunlight on the roof and painted them, and tried to get the true tones.” But he was no slave to observation alone. He would tell his students, the wall captions reveal, “Strain your brain more than your eye,” and “Youcan copy a thing to a certain limit. Then you must use the intellect.” Eakinsis never unthinking; this is his strength and his weakness. Our sense of an intelligence exerted is not always balanced by the sense of a moment captured.ThePair-Oared Shell is muffled and murky, for all its studied grandeur; a rapid oil sketch that mirrors the composition, The Oarsmen (circa 1873), is much more persuasive and energetic in its juxtaposition of sun and shadow, monumental bulk and skimming lightness.

The Biglin Brothers Racing (1872) and The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake (1873) depict an actual event, a race, watched by an estimated thirty thousand people on shore, in which the Biglins defeated a pair of challengers from Pittsburgh. As in The Pair-Oared Shell, some painstaking technical studies (detailing the outriggers down to the nuts and bolts) seem wasted within the somber dullness of the painting. In The Biglin Brothers Racing, though the puffy sky declares fair weather, sunlight seems to be falling only on the Biglin brothers and the open blade of a single poised oar. Close examination shows a treatment of distant figures and carriage on the shore that would do credit to a miniaturist, and an unpleasant, scrabbly rendering of the two subjects, including a use of the pointed end of the brush for some highlights. The details are not very telling, within a flatly horizontal composition established by the shoreline and the long shell, which extends beyond both sides of the canvas.Placing the loser’s pointed prow along the lower edge of the canvas is a witty touch but overlookable.

The next year’s painting is much superior as a visual drama. Silhouetted against a sheet of colorless, glaring water, the brothers tensely negotiate themaneuver of turning the race stake; their opponents, in white shirts and red head kerchiefs (though in fact they racily rowed bare-chested and hatless), tardily approach their stake, while a tiny figure in a third scull, whom the catalogidentifies as Eakins himself, raises an arm in excitement. The inevitably horizontal composition is varied by the oblique angles of the maneuver, and the contrasting bands of light and shadow work to set off the action and establish depth. It is a masterly genre painting, aloof but empathetic, aristocratic and tautin its oblique intersections of slender boats, oars, and flagpole.

The critic Mariana Griswold van Rensselaer, seeing the painting in 1880, said that no one could match Eakins for “adapting the matter-of-fact elements of our surroundings to artistic use.” The matter-of-fact eye, as Eakins turned thirty, preferred to dwell on things above all; in 1874 he painted, in his portrait Professor Benjamin Howard Rand, a brass microscope astounding in its vividness, pressing the human face beside it back into the shadows. Eakins here, and in his bridge supports and scull rigging, his knife-sharp lines and pinprick transfers, aspires more to duplicate the object in painted perspective than to provide a visual sensation. The art of painting in the later nineteenth century, with photography thriving and empirical science philosophically dominant, was groping for its assignment. Gérôme deployed his meticulous studio methods, by and large, in the reconstruction of an exotic past or a remote geography; the same analytical approach to the immediate environment threatens to embalm the living. Even the medium of watercolor, so fluid and notational for Winslow Homer, in Eakins is dry, pointillist, and static.

John Biglin in a Single Scull is displayed in four versions: a pencil, ink, and wash study on a receding grid, with notations in Eakins’s Beaux Arts French (circa 1873); two nearly identical watercolors also from 1873; and an oil close-up of Biglin, in the same pose but with the boat cropped and the sky cleared of clouds, dated 1874 though an entry in Eakins’s journal suggests that this oil was a study preceding the watercolors. Another watercolor, dating from 1872, existed and was sent to Gérôme in Paris; he complimented Eakins on “the construction and the building up combined with the honesty which has presided over this work,” but thought the rower’s pose lacked movement. Biglin does seem quietly brooding, though his oar is poised for a mighty pull; the most interesting passage in the paintings is the water in the foreground, stippled and striped with brown reflections of the shell. The figure itself seems suitable to decorate a cigar box—the heroic rower as if in oval inset, with touches of gilt. Eakins himself declined to exhibit “those Biglin ones” at the National Academy Annual in 1875 because, he wrote Earl Shinn, a fellow Gérôme student and now an art critic, “They are clumsy & although pretty well drawn are wanting in distance & some other qualities.” Instead, he submitted a “little picture…better than those,” which was The Schreiber Brothers (1874).

The Schreibers were amateur recreational rowers, and their awkwardness with the oars is faithfully rendered, along with the linear anatomy of a racing shell. The composition is familiar—the slightly diagonal glide, the shadow of the looming stone pier—but the painting represents an atmospheric advance. Except for the red outrigger supports, which glow like neon tubes, sunlight is allowed to shape the prospect, which opens on the right into a gleaming liquid plane and a space promising to release the rowers from the oppressive shadow of the pier, in which a party of fishermen are barely visible. “The picture don’t please me altogether,” Eakins wrote to Shinn. “I had it too long about I guess….Anyhow I am tired of it. I hope it will sell and I’ll never see it again.”

His last rowing picture, Oarsmen on the Schuylkill (circa 1874) does not quite dispel an aura of boredom with the subject of sculling, though Eakins returns, with four individualized men, to the same sunlit blue-gray river which supported Max Schmitt in his single scull. Schmitt is among the four, still frowning, and not making much speed, because for the first time in this series the scullers cast distinct reflections. Though two pencil perspective studies show Eakins to be as diligent as ever, the boat somehow doesn’t fit the river, whose featureless wooded bank and reflection appear about to bump the prow. None of the man-made landmarks present in Max Schmitt are visible here; the undershirted men seem rather comically abandoned in a wilderness, with their burnsides and tight dark trousers. An oil sketch shows a solitary Schmitt to have been Eakins’s first thought; turning him into a foursome produced diminished psychological returns. Yet the manner of painting is freer, less scratchy, with a lighter palette, reminiscent tonally of the young Degas. The cumulus cloud is not convincing. The river landscape is minimally indicated, and the bluegray water looks like paper. His three-year exercise in sculling concluded, Eakins will turn increasingly to indoor portraits.

An odd melancholy in these moody, scrupulous canvases asks for comment. There is not a trace of a smile, though the milieu is recreational. All is earnest effort. The sunlight falls like moonlight. It is as if the painter as he approached thirty foresaw his disappointing future of mixed reviews and grudging popular recognition. Conservative in technique, he was confrontational in his subject matter; the bloody tableau of his monumental Portrait of Doctor Gross (1875) and the flaunting nudity of William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (1876-1877) and The Swimming Hole (circa 1883-1885) were sensational but humorless.

To an age ever more at home with bright impressionistic canvases, Eakins was an uncomfortable painter. Discomfort and a grieving inwardness distinguish the best of his many portraits—Amelia Van Buren (circa 1891), Edith Mahon (1904), and his Self-Portrait of 1902, which tames down a more truculent and even satanic earlier version. Ironically, this loyal pupil of French academism alienated the academies of his native land. A charismatic and enthusiastic teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy, he offended Philadelphia propriety by removing the loincloth from a male model in a class that included female students, and was dismissed in 1886. For a similar gesture he lost his position at the Drexel Institute in 1895, after a number of female sitters complained of what would now be called sexual harassment—“uncomfortable sexual advances or posingdemands,” as John Wilmerding puts it in his catalog for the Smithsonian retrospective.2

Eakin’s canvases do tease the limits of decency in his time: his portrait of Dr. Gross has the viewer looking directly up the rectum of the naked patient; his other great surgical tableau, The Agnew Clinic (1899), depicts a mastectomy upon a sleeping beauty, and William Rush and His Model (1907-1908) presents, in full frontal nudity, that traditionally evaded reality, the female public bush. Were these calculated affronts committed in a spirit of sexual aggression or of scientific truthfulness? He defended himself by appealing to the latter, and to the need for artists to know their anatomy. Nudity and verity were linked with an unusual closeness in his mind. His many photographs of himself and students of both sexes naked have the dreamy ripeness of forbidden fruit. By no accident did he strike up a cherished friendship with another maligned singer of the whole human truth, Walt Whitman.

Yet Whitman had a great subject: New York City, symbol of a democratic nation embarking from a rural paradise. Eakins had the troubled faces of the Philadelphia gentry. He himself, one can say, was not untroubled, and his brushwork—unlike that of his contemporary John Singer Sargent or his idol Velásquez—has little joyful exuberance to it. Painting itself never became, but for the briefest passages, his subject. In his last years, he saw his reputation rise from its near-ruin, and by now the sexual tension of his work seems merely factual and alert; it makes him appear modern, conservative though his technique remained. Like Henry Adams, he feels like a man born out of his time, with all the gifts except a confident premodern humanism. Whatever the reasons, there was more conflict in his career and his psyche than there should have been, given his initial talent and dedication; the cloud over his dispassionate realism can be felt in this inaugural series, of young men launched upon the Schuylkill.

  1. 1

    Lloyd Goodrich, Thomas Eakins, Volumes I and II (Harvard University Press, 1982).

  2. 2

    John Wilmerding, Thomas Eakins (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993).