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The Philadelphia Story

Thomas Eakins: American Realist

Catalog of the exhibition organized by Darrel Sewell
an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, June 18–September 15, 2002
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 genre scenes, with women at pianos—have not traveled well over time.

A surprisingly large amount of the Met’s show is more Americana than vital, lively art. It doesn’t help Eakins that an abundance of his photographs, and photographs by people in his “circle,” which were rarely meant to be taken as independent works, have been given equal billing with the paintings. They’re additional Americana. And strong as Eakins’s portraits can be, they are really sensitive works done in a language, a kind of academic naturalism, that was hardly his own. The exhibition keeps losing air as it goes along.

Eakins’s heavenly work comes right at the beginning. It is astounding to learn that The Champion Single Sculls, a painting in the Met’s collection which many of us have long known as Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, was in effect Eakins’s first independent painting. It was the first ambitious work he did after returning to Philadelphia from his years abroad as a student. What he brought back from Paris was a sense that significant art could be made on the theme of smallish figures placed in a larger setting. The idea was basically miniaturism, and the conjunction of it with Eakins’s feeling for his first subject, the sporting life he had grown up with in and around Philadelphia, set off fireworks.

In the Max Schmitt painting, set on a warm, sunny, autumn day on the Schuylkill River, with our sculling champ momentarily drifting by and other rowers and a steamboat in the distance, every element in the superbly designed picture—the wood boat; the stone house on the shore; the steel bridges in the distance; the water; the far distant riverbank; the now leafless branches; the very clouds, which are as elegantly shaped as the boat—is felt as oil paint itself and as the exact, tangible texture of the thing being represented. Eakins’s control over his minuscule detailing (and this is a work that is almost as thrilling when looked at in a reproduction, with a magnifying glass) isn’t fussy. It’s amazing.

In pictures that followed, whether Sailboats Racing on the Delaware, Pushing for Rail, or Starting Out after Rail (and there are other works of their caliber that didn’t make it to the show), Eakins miraculously brought together this extraordinarily small detailing—it might be of clothes, faces, sails, or rifles, and in sizes best measured in millimeters, not inches—with overall compositions of immovably balanced per- fection. Starting Out after Rail—a rail is a marsh bird—shows two men in a boat, one looking directly back at us with a face that is so finely detailed it is hallucinatory. In the picture, which revolves around only three colors, white, brown, and blue, Eakins’s feeling for the textures of the world and for composition itself reaches incomparable heights. Standing before this painting, we believe that a wood boat or a cotton shirt or a canvas sail or water or sky or the sheer distinction between proximity and distance could hardly be experienced more delicately or more forcibly.

Eakins’s masterworks are in another league from the academic realism he had studied in Paris. But they’re kin to works by other nineteenth-century painters, including John Sell Cotman, one of the most gifted of the English Romantic landscapists of the early part of the century, Christen Købke, who also painted earlier in the century and is by far Denmark’s premier painter, and, most obviously, Degas and Winslow Homer, who were making paintings that are quite comparable to these Eakins pictures around the very same years. Degas, in his racetrack scenes, and Homer, in his paintings of croquet games, were in their respective ways as keenly involved with sports as Eakins was. With all these artists (not that they went about it the same way, or represent an exclusive club) there’s a dizzyingly assured balance of the linear and the painterly. Whether showing a bridge or a cloud, a carriage or an oar, a shirt, a glove, or a parasol, they make elements in their pictures appear bounded by the thinnest, most razor-sharp line. Yet the pictures, far from exuding an arid exactitude, pulse with zones that are far brushier than we expect to find at first and with areas where oil paint has an enameled, slab-like thickness. What we look at in each artist’s best work is a creator who responds to academic standards and yet is more deeply in thrall to his subject, thereby transforming those standards.

All these artists were drawn to a linear hyper-precision when they were first starting out, and it’s debatable whether any of them ever did finer work. Certainly, none went on to work that is as astounding technically or as lovable. Degas and Homer had long and adventurous careers that followed, each making kinds of pictures that are probably more widely admired by their different audiences than their more tightly drawn earlier painting. Eakins was determined, too, to make pictures that weren’t so tightly drawn. He was equally anxious to construct images that could be taken in from a distance, that were based on dramatic contrasts of light and dark areas, and his ambition was as huge as that of his French and American near-contemporaries. His famous Gross Clinic, of 1875, is a testament to this quest. It is a monumentally large and heroically conceived picture of a teaching surgeon lecturing medical students in the middle of an operation. His scalpel is held in a bloodied hand, and light pours down on him while his audience watches in the surrounding darkness.

The Gross Clinic is unquestionably impressive, as is a similarly designed picture of the time, Baby at Play. This is a wonderfully odd, shadowy painting, somehow suggesting Giorgio de Chirico’s dream images, which shows a child surrounded by toys, playing with building blocks. What makes both works successful, I think, is Eakins’s feeling for unusual detail scrupulously rendered. If The Gross Clinic didn’t precisely delineate, as it does, not only the particulars of a leg operation but the sense that we can feel, for instance, the very individual strands of blond hair of the young man in the foreground, a member of the operating team, the picture might have come down to us as a pastiche of Rembrandt.

The writing on Eakins rarely notes that he had two rather separate lines of work, and that, after the 1870s, they didn’t cross-fertilize each other. The miniaturist precision that he brought back from Paris and that he worked at on and off for roughly a decade has little real relation to the art of large areas of dark and light that he also began evolving in his early years and that ultimately became portraiture pure and simple. This split in his thinking is apparent at an exhibition. Reading about him, on the contrary, we tend to feel that his work is of a piece. Marc Simpson, in a catalog essay, points out how, for example, Baby at Play and The Gross Clinic are both about “serious purpose,” which threads through everything Eakins touched, no matter how slight.

Children playing block games; sculptors carving; collectors with their possessions; professionals surrounded by their working tools (or merely wearing clothes that indicate their occupation, as in his many pictures of clerics); surgeons teaching; athletes competing or exercising; people playing chess or musical instruments; coachmen driving; singers in concert—this world ties together as neatly as that of any American artist, especially considering that, unlike, say, Ryder’s art, Eakins’s isn’t an art of one note. It takes time to discover the larger unity in his seemingly diverse images. It is stimulating in itself to realize that in Eakins’s mind there were lines connecting baseball players and concert singers, boxers and mathematicians, scullers and playing children. Taken in its entirety, his art presents people either engaged in activities of risk, skill, and mental and physical agility, or else, presumably, thinking about the very activities.

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