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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.

Yet on a museum’s walls the unity of Eakins’s art breaks down. To go through the exhibition is, in part, to watch an exactitude about light, space, and the textures of the world, which is responsible for his most charged and dynamic work, shrivel up. By the time he came, in 1879, to make A May Morning in the Park, which has long been known as The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand, and shows a richly outfitted coaching party trotting by, he had begun to lose some personal poetic tie to a miniaturist’s sense of the world. The picture is certainly accomplished. We can almost see the coach wheels spinning, and hear the horses clopping, and the coach and horses together form a brilliantly shiny toy. But there’s no relation between this exquisite toy and the lank area of undifferentiated green foliage it has been plopped into. Precisely the quality that makes The Champion Single Sculls and Starting Out after Rail so extraordinary, the magically perfect placement of every detail, both on the surface and in deepest space, is entirely absent. There’s more scientific exactitude than art in A May Morning—which, we read, derived from Eakins’s desire to present, unlike the way it was generally shown, the true way that horses appear when in motion.

A crucial part of Eakins is also missing from slightly later pictures of shad fishing on the Delaware River. His design is elegant; we see the fishermen and some onlookers on the shore as figures in a pretty frieze. But the pictures are physically ugly. They present a light-deprived, gluey netherworld, tinted with drab colors. Eakins at the time was seriously involved with the possibilities of using photographs as aids in the composition of a painting, and these paintings very much derived from the projection, and tracing, of camera images. It is actually livelier to hear how they were, in effect, collaged together from many different photographs than it is to stand before the works.

Eakins’s most significant picture of his middle years and, more importantly, the painting that stands at the crossroads of his career, perhaps even of his life story, is Swimming, of 1884–1885 (see the illustration on page 6). In a catalog essay, Kathleen A. Foster deftly sums up this often-reproduced image of nude men in the water, diving, and lounging on rocks as “a Greek pediment come to life at the edge of a creek in suburban Philadelphia.” The statement captures some of the tension and (no doubt unintended) irony of the work, its assured mingling of a choreography of bodily poses of well-proportioned young men reminiscent of sculptures from the Parthenon with a very ordinary watering hole. Left out of Foster’s description is that Swimming is surely a love song to male beauty. There probably isn’t anything comparable to it, as such, in American painting. Even in European painting, whether of youths who represent mythological beings or who are also swimmers or athletes, as in the paintings of Frédéric Bazille, there is rarely quite the balance Eakins achieves here, where the artist conveys an ardent, heroizing desire yet with no trace of lasciviousness (as there is in Sargent’s male nudes).

Swimming presents a sense of physical adoration that is seamlessly of a piece with a quest for compositional and anatomical rightness. Even a subtle detail, not so noticeable at first, equally serves a compositional and a psychological need. In the image, an older man is seen swimming toward the men on or near the rocks, and the painter has unmistakably given this onlooker his own features. Even if we don’t recognize the man as Eakins, this swimmer provides the amazingly right concluding touch, for his patch of bright skin formally balances that of the other units of bright skin, and with his presence the painting takes on a sexual and narrative tension. Being appreciated, at a particular instant, by a singular older man, these beautiful young swimmers become individuals themselves. The painting loses whatever sense it might have had of being merely a presentation of a timeless, sexless, impersonal Arcadia.

Swimming doesn’t necessarily reveal that Eakins, who seems to have been happily married to Susan Macdowell from 1884 until his death—they had no children—harbored homosexual longings he couldn’t otherwise express. The painter’s actual sexual orientation, in any event, isn’t the issue. The issue is that the painting represents the moment when some aspect of his early work, the immersion in a world of primarily but not exclusively male, and very physically male, activities, comes into its full flowering. It isn’t farfetched to believe that many contemporary viewers, going through the Met’s show with only a limited knowledge of the life and personality of Thomas Eakins, and encountering his scattered images of trim, tautly muscular athletes, and his fewer and less idealized, even homelier, female figures, and, to cap it off, the eye-opening paean to the nude male body that is Swimming, might conclude that the artist was more than passingly attracted to his own sex. Certainly, the only sexual heat that percolates from his pictures is homoerotic.

Yet the sexual excitement, or longing, we sense in Swimming is but a part of what makes the painting so central in Eakins’s work. The image was, too, as far as he could take his efforts as a teacher. Eakins and teaching were maybe too natural a fit, because in some way his desire to impart his sense of the morality of striving for the utmost realism or of making the study of the nude the unquestioned centerpiece of an art education overran, or supplanted, some imaginative spark at his core. He probably reached his height as a teacher in the period when Swimming was made. By 1882, after three years of instructing at the Pennsylvania Academy, he became its director. In short order he came to dictate every aspect of school life, and before he was fired, in 1886, he had made the Academy the most “progressive” art school in the country. At the same moment, his belief in the primacy of working from the nude became a shared community idea, with Eakins its guru. The numerous photographs of the painter himself nude, in studios or outdoors, or nude with fellow students, or of nude students posing or engaged in some activity, attest to this.

A summation of many strands of Eakins’s thinking, Swimming might also be taken as a last attempt at fashioning a masterwork from the kind of image he started off making, where small figures are tensely fixed in a larger space. But the vision was now overripe. Swimming is a more potent image than Starting Out after Rail, but it isn’t as wondrous or rare as painting. There is an indeterminacy around the edges of the various bodies, a lack of crispness to the light, a sense that something tangibly Eakinsesque is gone. He never replaced it, really, with an idea of his own.

Eakins was only in his early forties when he turned his energies full-time to portraiture. And while he revisited some of his early themes a handful of times thereafter, he was basically a portraitist for the almost quarter-century that remained of his career. (He would stop working around 1910, six years before his death, because of increasingly frail health.) Eakins thought highly of his portraits. Rarely done on commission, they were no more about making money than were earlier pictures that centered on perspective, anatomy, light, or motion. He painted people he wanted to paint, and he often gave the finished work to the sitter (and on some occasions the usually far from flattering picture would be refused). While there were always family members and favorite students to paint, he increasingly chose people in the Philadelphia professional community, particularly scientists, musicians, mathematicians, clergymen, and teachers—people with whom he already had a friendship or some rapport, or whom he simply had heard of and admired for their endeavors.

His finest examples—that of Amelia C. Van Buren, who rests in a chair, looking away, her hand holding up her wearied head; of his wife Susan, who faces us directly with penetrating, liquid eyes; or of Maud Cook, who also turns away but is not as deeply drawn into herself as Van Buren—have an emotional depth that would make them stand out in any pantheon of American portraiture. Eakins specialized in the genre during the age of the “society portrait,” a period when glamorous or merely dapper or comely images of individuals had their greatest currency; and there is no question that Eakins’s often dark-toned examples, with sitters who generally seem preoccupied, can suggest a range of mixed feelings left out of the typical American or European portraits of the time.

But after you see a few of these sometimes enormous pictures it’s hard to keep them in mind as separate experiences. As works of art, they’re impersonal, even anonymous. That the many faces we see are serious or reflective, or that there’s no attempt at flattery or bravura painting, may be Eakins’s trademarks, but they hardly give these works the tension of a particular maker’s hand or mind or eye. What we encounter is a generic representation, little different from the approach hammered home in European academies for decades. We’re given a world, ultimately, of weak light and rarely surprising color.

Where Eakins, in the last decades of his career, breaks out of this lockstep is in the backgrounds, the subsidiary parts, of his pictures. He long had a gift for showing the distinctions between a bright foreground and a darkened rearground. One of the best aspects of The Gross Clinic is the many dimly visible students seated in the theater, each surprisingly his own person though hardly more present than a ghost. Fourteen years later, in the painter’s second and also imposing version of a teaching surgeon at work, The Agnew Clinic, he amplified the role of the dimly present student audience to the degree that without this dulled, orangy-red realm of angled heads and twisting bodies there’s no picture.

Deriving pleasure from the subsidiary parts of Eakins’s later work reaches its oddest point, though, in the Portrait of Professor Henry A. Rowland, of 1897, a picture that becomes more than a piece of convention because of the enormous frame Eakins created for the painting. On the wide, flat wood frame he carved equations, units of measure, and doodles—markings which we take to be signposts of Rowland’s thinking. This playful and daring addition calls to mind the very spirit of much twentieth-century experimentation. But the liberating frame, held in check by the unscintillating portrait, also underscores how much Eakins’s later work is about entrapment—of the sitters in their stilled settings and of Eakins himself in a painting language that wasn’t fully his own.

There’s barely a sense that Eakins might have any shortcomings in the exhibition’s accompanying catalog, which contains numerous articles by many scholars. Although Elizabeth Milroy notes that A May Morning is “curiously bloodless,” and Kathleen A. Foster suggests that the firing of Eakins from the Academy had as much to do with his own ”authoritarian” approach as the prudishness of the board members, the essays give off the air that it is a foregone conclusion that the artist is a monument, deserving of having every aspect of his work combed for significance. This bloated conception comes to a head in the decision to treat his photographs, and those attributed to his “circle,” both in the exhibition and in the preposterously heavy catalog, as of equal importance to his paintings. It’s clear from many essays, particularly W. Douglass Paschall’s study of the subject, that photos were aids to Eakins, of no more interest than his perspective drawings or sketches, few of which he saved. Photographs by him, his students, and family exist in number only because they were collected by others.

And the photographs in general are not remarkable. Yes, there are portrait heads of real distinction, where we feel a photographer able to strip the sitter of all airs and defenses and to make a self-sufficient artwork. But largely we look at moments of daily family life and the life of art students—posing in the nude, playing games, dressing up in togas, busying themselves in studios—that range from pleasant to having the barest documentary value. To give these photographs, in the show’s and the book’s layouts, the same space as Eakins’s paintings is a disservice to the artist. What would he have thought, for example, about the truly mindless decision, in the catalog, to have Swimming, which is a major painting, face, on the opposite page, reproduced at the same size, a dinky photo of nude bathers at the same site? The point can only be the crass one that they are of equal artistic value.

What some of the many specialized articles in the catalog provide, especially Carol Troyen’s “Eakins in the Twentieth Century,” is the chance to get out of our systems the idea that the painter was a martyr to philistine culture of his day. The notion which many of us grew up on is that in the latter part of his life and in the decades after his death Eakins “suffered,” as Lloyd Goodrich, his first biographer, put it in his essay for the Whitney’s 1970 Eakins retrospective, “a neglect more complete than any major artist in our history.” Troyen, aided by comments by other writers here, shows this to be highly inaccurate. Eakins was a figure of national significance already by the middle of the 1890s, when he was turning fifty. By then he was getting used to hearing himself called “an elder statesman in the art world.” He died knowing that for many he was his country’s greatest painter, and immediately after his death he was accorded a major memorial show by the Metropolitan Museum.

The myth of an insufficiently recognized, even dishonored, Eakins had some basis in fact. His relations with Philadelphia’s art establishment had long been rocky, and the painter himself, in 1894, wrote, “My honors are misunderstanding, persecution, and neglect.” And surely the work of the latter half of his life is unrelievedly melancholic (or plain glum). If Goodrich and other writers, including the critic Henry McBride, ultimately overplayed an Eakins who was a solitary, stoical warrior for homely American truths it may have been because, in the climate of indifference that met adventurous new art in the States from the First World War until the late Forties, that was exactly the kind of hero that was needed. Lloyd Goodrich’s vision of Eakins, in other words, is out of date.

Yet it should be said that Goodrich, at least in his 1970 essay, saw the painter more roundly and clearly than the contributors to the present catalog. He recognized that Eakins’s portraits “did not offer the full sensuous and plastic possibilities of which he was capable.” Elaborating, Goodrich wrote that the “fundamental sensuousness” of Eakins’s art “too seldom reached full expression. The limitations of the world in which he lived, together with his own realistic limitations, prevented full realization of his potentialities.” Goodrich buried this verdict deep in the back of his catalog; and there’s no hint of such a judgment anywhere else in his otherwise idolizing account. It was clearly hard for him to integrate his perception with his belief that Eakins was a titan. Goodrich’s handful of words, though, give to the subject what current writing leaves out: some realism.

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