The Ache in Eakins

Thomas Eakins:The Rowing Pictures

An exhibition at the National Gallery, Washington, D. C., June 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. 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…

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