Philadelphia Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 446 pp., $65.00
Walt Whitman wasn’t known as an art critic, but when he said that Thomas Eakins “is not a painter, he is a force,” he put his finger on both the allure of this artist and some of the confusion that exists over him. For many decades now there has been a blurring of Eakins the artist and Eakins the rock of integrity, the man who, whether wishing to make of his scenes and the figures within them a mathematically coordinated world, or insisting on rendering the exact anatomical nature of the model posing before him, or refusing to show his sitters in anything but their most characteristic, everyday expression, lent an ethical weight to the Realist movement of the nineteenth century. Eakins’s very name has almost come to be synonymous with the thought that a life in the arts need not be divorced from a quest for moral fiber. His being fired from the directorship of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in 1886, for his insistence that the loincloth be dropped from a male model in a class attended by women, remains one of the signal moments in American art history.
Eakins the painter, at least judged in the sphere of American art of the late nineteenth century (or of most other national schools of the era apart from France), is a commanding figure, too. He made breathtakingly beautiful paintings with the daintiest, most precise hand, and could switch a year later to attempt works with broad demarcations of light and dark that were meant to compete with masterpieces of seventeenth-century European painting. From his student work in France and Spain, in the 1860s, he was grounded in European academic ideals, and he was able not only to use these values to paint the local life he knew when he went home to Philadelphia but to make an art that felt truly original. His pictures from the 1870s, of figures placed in large spaces—on a river, or in marshland—are peerless, world-class works, and among his later paintings, which are primarily portraits, we encounter some of the more complex faces in American art.
Yet at the Metropolitan Museum’s current Eakins retrospective (which was organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art), Whitman’s saying that Eakins was more a force than a painter seems literally true. For all his power and his varied attempts to make art accountable to a scientific realism, there is something dreary and strangled about Eakins’s work all told. Financially independent throughout his life (he was born in 1844 and died in 1916), he was free to experiment on a range of approaches. But many of his experiments—his deriving paintings from photographic sources; his desire to paint a crucifixion in order to represent as naturalistically as possible its effect on anatomy; his wish to transform scenes of nude young people outdoors into arcadian idylls; his hope to produce story-like pictures set in colonial America; his attempt to create indoor …