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Three Ways of Looking at Thomas Eakins

1.

On November 10, 2006, Thomas Jefferson University, a medical school in Philadelphia, announced its intention to sell The Gross Clinic, a painting by Thomas Eakins, for $68 million. For an artist who once complained that his only honors were “misunderstanding, persecution, & neglect,” the price alone might have seemed an act of restitution. Eakins painted The Gross Clinic in 1875 at the age of thirty; widely regarded as one of the greatest American works of art, it has lost none of its power. It depicts Dr. Samuel Gross, a distinguished surgeon who taught at the university’s Jefferson Medical College, pausing during a surgical procedure, a bloody scalpel in his blood-drenched fingers, to address an audience of medical students. Four assistants attend to the patient, a young man whose left buttock and thigh, with an open incision, are exposed to view. One holds etherized gauze over the patient’s face. In a lower corner, a diminutive woman with clawlike hands shields her eyes in horror from the gory spectacle. Among the students, Eakins has painted a shadowy portrait of himself, dispassionately taking notes.

When The Gross Clinic was first exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, not in the hall of fine arts as Eakins had expected but deliberately hidden away in a small building devoted to Civil War medical practices, the woman’s shocked response more nearly matched the reaction of viewers. The scalpel with dripping blood was considered particularly provocative—“A degradation of Art,” one critic remarked. Bought for $200 and given to Thomas Jefferson University by an alumni group in 1878, the painting has remained relatively unseen despite the shrinelike gallery the university built for its display. Approximately five hundred visitors come to view it annually, an astonishingly low number for such a celebrated work of art. That will change with its sale.

Initially, the National Gallery of Art in Washington was to share ownership of the painting with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by the Wal-Mart heiress Alice L. Walton and scheduled to open in Bentonville, Arkansas, in 2009. Anticipating objections to the sale of a painting so closely identified with Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson University gave local institutions a chance to match the offer. The Philadelphia Museum of Art announced an aggressive fund-raising effort in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Eakins had studied and where he taught for many years, before his dismissal in 1886 amid allegations of impropriety regarding the use of nude models. The two museums achieved their aim. The Gross Clinic, which was placed on public view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on January 5, will remain in Philadelphia.

Except for three years of study in Paris, Eakins spent his entire life in Philadelphia. And yet for much of his career he was a pariah there, his name associated with various scandals and whispered allegations. The causes of Eakins’s embattled status have become clearer during recent years with the publication of a huge trove of documents, letters, photographs, and candid interviews with the artist’s associates, first brought to light in 1984. These materials had been used by Eakins’s first significant biographer, Lloyd Goodrich, but had vanished soon after the publication in 1933 of his highly influential book, Thomas Eakins: His Life and Work.

One might have thought that so much new biographical data would have helped to resolve any lingering debates surrounding Eakins’s life, personality, and achievement. But three recent biographies—one by a writer on crime, one by a distinguished historian, and one by a respected specialist in American art—suggest the opposite. It is unsettling to read the books in succession, for they seem to describe three quite different men: a happily married heterosexual; a closeted homosexual married to a lesbian; and a neurotic victim of incest who felt compelled to remove his clothes in public. It is difficult to think of a parallel case of such divergent accounts of a well-known life.

2.

Eakins was born in 1844, an exact contemporary of his fellow Philadelphia artist Mary Cassatt. He was the eldest child of Benjamin Eakins, a professional calligrapher, writing instructor at a local Quaker school, and landlord, and Caroline Cowperthwait Eakins, a mentally unstable woman who was descended from a Philadelphia Quaker family and died insane. He attended Central High School, excelling in mathematics and science, before enrolling in art classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and attending lectures on anatomy at the Jefferson Medical College. There is little record of his life during the Civil War years, though Eakins, like many other young men, avoided military service by paying a fee for a replacement in the army. From 1866 to 1870 he lived in Paris, where he studied with the celebrated academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, known for mildly erotic scenes of the Middle East, and had his first enlivening sense of bohemian freedom. “I saw more of new character and manner than I would ever have discovered by myself,” he reported after visiting a brothel with classmates. He also traveled to Spain, where he studied paintings of Velázquez at the Prado. A gifted linguist in Latin and Greek, he learned to speak both French and Spanish; a friend once quipped that the reticent Eakins was “silent in seven languages.”

After returning to Philadelphia, Eakins began teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy, where he was appointed director in 1882. During the 1870s and early 1880s, he painted several ambitious works with grouped figures, including The Gross Clinic, William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (1876), and his exquisitely precise sporting pictures of rowers and hunters, such as Starting Out after Rail (1874). In his early work, as Sanford Schwartz has observed in these pages,

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 perfection. 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.1

Eakins was commissioned to paint the fidgety Rutherford B. Hayes, the newly elected president of the United States, during the spring of 1877, an experience that he compared to painting “a little animal.” (The painting, which satisfied no one, has disappeared.) Eakins was one of the first American artists to become deeply interested in photography. He briefly worked with Eadweard Muybridge on studies of human motion at the University of Pennsylvania, and used photography to achieve new effects in the depiction in paint of moving horses and young men playing sports. Recent research has shown that he also projected photographic images onto canvas for some of his paintings.

In 1884, at the age of forty, Eakins married Susan Macdowell, one of his students at the academy, in a Quaker ceremony. Then his life began to come apart. His resignation from the Pennsylvania Academy was requested in 1886 after he removed the loincloth from a male model in a life class for female students, allegedly to demonstrate “pelvic motion.” Following his firing, Eakins suffered an emotional breakdown. After consulting a doctor of nervous diseases, he traveled to the Dakota Territory for the cure recommended by Theodore Roosevelt and other advocates of the strenuous life; he returned, seemingly rejuvenated, with cowboy costumes and a horse named Billy. He befriended the aging Walt Whitman, who was living in nearby Camden, New Jersey, and painted an affecting portrait of him in 1888. The following year, Eakins’s troubled twenty-four-year-old niece, Ella Crowell, shot herself, after telling her parents that Eakins had abused her in some “unparalleled” way. At about the same time, a former student named Lillian Hammitt claimed that Eakins had promised to marry her; she was picked up by police on the Philadelphia streets wearing only a “bathing costume,” and was put in an institution for the insane.

Eakins lived his entire life, except for a brief period after his marriage, in his parents’ house, which he inherited after his father’s death, and to which he added an upper floor as a studio. During his later years, after the scandals had contributed to his increasing isolation, he painted mainly portraits. Remarkable for their probing insight into mood and inner conflict, these late portraits were generally done at Eakins’s invitation, without charge. Among the most arresting is his 1904 portrait of Mrs. Edith Mahon, one of the many musicians he painted. With her intense, red-rimmed eyes and richly painted black dress, she seems in deep mourning—for her life, as a Chekhov heroine might say. Eakins’s reputation plummeted during the 1890s, the period of “misunderstanding, persecution, & neglect,” but rebounded somewhat after 1900, when he won a few prizes for his work. The year after his death in 1916, an exhibition of his paintings was mounted at the Metropolitan Museum, and progressive critics such as Lewis Mumford began to see his work as a tough-minded alternative to “genteel” artists such as John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase.

By the 1940s, Eakins was regarded by many as the preeminent American artist of the nineteenth century. Lloyd Goodrich’s biography, with its appealing narrative of the rebellious artist confronted with an uncomprehending public, was perhaps the most significant factor in his steep rise. Eakins was seen as a pioneering figure by twentieth-century artists committed to the realistic portrayal of the human figure in motion or at rest. When Raphael Soyer painted his Homage to Thomas Eakins (1963–1965), in which Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh, and other figurative painters are assembled around The Gross Clinic, he placed Goodrich, who served as director of the Whitney Museum of Art, in the central position, lecturing to the group, much as Dr. Gross lectured to his medical students.

3.

The Eakins case begins with the so-called Bregler papers, the long-vanished collection of Eakins’s personal documents purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy in 1985. The Eakins scholar Kathleen Foster had tracked them down, having received a tip that Charles Bregler, a former student of Eakins’s, might have ended up with the papers. Goodrich was familiar with these documents, but had made highly selective use of them. He had chosen to ignore, for example, hundreds of photographs Eakins had taken of people posing in the nude, many of them identifiable as students at the Pennsylvania Academy. There were also nude photographs of Eakins himself, sometimes in the company of his students or friends.

  1. 1

    Sanford Schwartz, “The Philadelphia Story,” The New York Review, August 15, 2002.

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