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.


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.



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.

Some of these photographs seemed related to specific paintings. Pictures of young male students wrestling, playing tug-of-war, and swimming were evidently associated in some way with Eakins’s well-known painting Swimming (1884–1885), in which Eakins, the lone swimmer in the painting, seems to be watching five nude men, one of whom is diving into the water, assembled in various positions around a rock embankment in a pond. Some critics have noted that the unusual encounter served important aesthetic purposes. “Even if we don’t recognize the man as Eakins,” Schwartz writes,

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.

But the photographs taken in preparation for Swimming and other paintings suggest that Eakins’s interest in seeing his students unclothed had complicated psychological origins as well. Goodrich in his 1933 biography had suppressed some of the more controversial details he had gleaned from interviews with Eakins’s students and acquaintances—his persistent attempts, for example, to coax women posing for portraits into removing their clothes so that he could examine their “bone structure.” It was Eakins’s artistic integrity that Goodrich had most insisted upon: his adamant refusal “to compromise with popular taste” and his commitment to scientific accuracy without sacrificing “vitality or warmth in the finished pictures.” A careful reading of the Bregler papers gave a more complicated picture of Eakins than Goodrich had found.

It is this more complex account that Henry Adams tries to provide in Eakins Revealed, published in 2005; the other two books under review are partly responses to Adams’s arguments. Adams is the only trained art historian of the three and the only one to look closely at the paintings and photographs. While some of his claims may seem extreme, they are presented forcefully and with ample evidence. Whatever one thinks of the specific biographical hypotheses he advances, he makes it difficult to ignore some of the more unsettling patterns he identifies in Eakins’s major paintings. Some of the most conspicuous of these are Eakins’s sustained attention to unhappy and prematurely aged women; his pervasive interest in people undressing; and his tendency to group his figures according to apparent family relationships.

Adams first asks us to notice how miserable Eakins’s subjects seem to be. Comparing contemporaneous photographs of his sitters with how Eakins himself has represented them, Adams notes that he consistently makes them seem older and sadder. This is particularly true of his portraits of women, who often look as though they have been crying. The woman shielding her eyes in The Gross Clinic is an extreme version of the troubled women who appear in so many of his paintings. His sitters often reported how unpleasant it could be to sit for Eakins, who seemed to want them to be unhappy. The mother of one sitter complained to Goodrich that Eakins made her daughter pose “about thirty-five times, two or three hours at a time”; another complained that he poked and prodded her during the sittings. Another source of unpleasantness was Eakins’s pressuring of his women sitters, including members of “respectable” society, to undress in his presence. The result, in any case, is a series of portraits in which women appear troubled and depressed.

Some of Eakins’s best-known paintings seem to emphasize the fact of disrobing. His ambitious history painting William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River is ostensibly about a sculptor carving a statue from a nude model. But the sculptor himself, lost in shadow, is a marginal figure in Eakins’s composition while a central position is accorded to a chair heaped with the model’s illuminated clothes, which Adams calls “a kind of still-life striptease.” Two other well-known paintings, The Gross Clinic and Swimming, draw the viewer’s attention to exposed human flesh, and the buttocks in particular. And then there are all those photographs, which seem to take the act of exposure in further experimental and theatrical directions.

Why, then, did Eakins paint in this way? Why was he drawn to the suffering of women and the exposure of men? Adams’s solution to the case, offered melodramatically at the close of his book, has a flat and disappointing quality, like the dreary solutions offered by Auguste Dupin or Sherlock Holmes after the laying out of a tantalizing chain of evidence. He believes that Eakins’s paintings are actually reenactments of family conflicts, and represent his efforts to work through traumatic events from his own childhood. For Adams, the insanity of Eakins’s mother (who died in 1872) is the central fact of his early life. Following the art historian Michael Fried’s analysis of The Gross Clinic, Adams interprets the painting as a tangle of family tensions, with Dr. Gross himself as the imposing father, the hysterical mother in the corner, and Eakins himself as, alternatively, the dutiful and diminutive scribe in the background and the vulnerable and exposed patient on the operating table.

Eakins, in Adams’s view, suffered from a psychiatric disorder: he was a compulsive exhibitionist. Adams conjectures that Eakins’s exhibitionism had its source in an early “marriage-like” intimacy with his deranged and depressed mother, an intimacy that may have involved inappropriate touching and sexual contact. His paintings of sad and aging women, according to Adams, are so many attempts to get his mother back into view, and under his control. (“I like a look of Agony,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “Because I know it’s true.”) But if there is some psychiatric logic to these claims, they don’t provide an adequate basis for judging the quality of the paintings.


Sidney Kirkpatrick’s The Revenge of Thomas Eakins opens with an outright rejection of Adams’s book as a “post-modern” farrago of speculation masquerading as fact, the result of “operatic extremes of lurid suppositions.” Kirkpatrick’s full-scale biography is well-researched and fluently written. It is particularly strong in its descriptions of the inner workings of the Philadelphia institutions that were so important to Eakins’s life, the Pennsylvania Academy in particular. As he shows, from its ambitious beginnings and progressive adoption of scientific observation and modeling from the nude, the academy became increasingly conservative in its instincts. The “revenge” of Kirkpatrick’s title is apparently meant to refer to Eakins’s posthumous triumph over his detractors, those who missed, for example, the greatness of The Gross Clinic. In his account of Eakins’s life, Kirkpatrick has adopted the position of the defense; his book is skewed by his refusal to adopt any of Adams’s suggestions concerning Eakins’s motivations and by his zeal to rebut them.

In this sense, Kirkpatrick’s book is something of a throwback to Goodrich’s view of Eakins as heroic iconoclast:

He doggedly followed the path less traveled by his contemporaries, and suffered the consequences. Judging from the evidence now brought to light [in the Bregler papers], added to the record of his paintings, all that sustained him was his impassioned and obsessive love of beauty in everything he saw, whether it was sunlight reflecting off a rower’s muscles, an old woman’s wrinkles, or blood on a surgeon’s scalpel.

Kirkpatrick manages to fit all the things that Adams finds troubling in Eakins’s work—wrinkles, muscles, blood—into this capacious notion of “love of beauty.” He finds the photographs of nudes entirely benign: “None of the surviving photographs show the models posed in any provocative or lewd manner.” All the photographs and related paintings show one thing, according to Kirkpatrick: “The human form was the most beautiful object in nature—not an object of desire but a miracle of muscle, bone, and blood.”

Kirkpatrick is dismissive of “prominent art historians and scholars” who suggest that Swimming “reveals evidence of homoerotic interests.” For Kirkpatrick, the painting is a liberating celebration of the beauty of the human body. Eakins “is leading his students toward self-discovery of their manhood and the overcoming of Victorian cultural prejudice and inhibition.” And yet, Kirkpatrick’s attempt to sever beauty from sexual desire is itself a Victorian gesture. If Swimming and Eakins’s friendship with Whitman have seemed to many scholars to suggest something about Eakins’s sexual inclinations, Kirkpatrick remains impervious:

A cavalcade of nude men modeled for him, and his long association with Walt Whitman provides evidence of his ability to be friendly with a homosexual man, but little more can be said.


William McFeely’s Portrait: The Life of Thomas Eakins suggests that there is in fact much more to say. Compared to his masterly biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Portrait seems impressionistic and elliptical, an essay in biographical speculation. Some of his hypotheses seem worth pursuing, for example his suggestion that the Eakins family, with its Quaker heritage, may have adopted a pacifist position during the Civil War.2 Like Kirkpatrick, McFeely is content to leave careful analysis of the paintings to art historians, preferring to make intuitive claims about their deeper meanings. In its odd combination of historical detail and orphic pronouncements, Portrait has some resemblance to works of criticism such as D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature and Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael.

McFeely accepts Adams’s claim that Eakins became in his later work a painter of human misery, but he seeks to give the misery a larger historical frame. As a historian of nineteenth-century America, McFeely sees a national retreat after the Civil War from the democratic ideals of equality and freedom as expressed in the works of Thoreau and Whitman. The Gilded Age, in his view, had lost its way amid political corruption, vast disparities between rich and poor, and the curtailment of the rights of blacks and women. While conceding that Eakins, who had little interest in history, “missed all this,” McFeely thinks he can see these big historical changes reflected in the portraits Eakins painted of middle-class Philadelphia acquaintances late in his life. In the great portrait of Mrs. Edith Mahon, a pianist who achieved a modest success as an accompanist and teacher, McFeely detects someone “rich in ineffable sadness” and suggests that “with Edith Mahon, more powerfully than ever before, Thomas Eakins saw another person’s terrible defiant sadness reflecting his own.” When he painted such portraits, Eakins was recording, in McFeely’s view, “people at the end of the nineteenth century who could no longer embrace an idealistic world.”

McFeely considers Swimming, which he calls “perhaps [Eakins’s] most important philosophical painting,” the best expression of this ideal world. He acknowledges the homoerotic undercurrent of the painting, and yet his final assessment is not far from Kirkpatrick’s view that the painting records a kind of initiation into freedom. Eakins was

introducing the students to the same awakening that swimming gave him. It is not the undoubted homoerotic component of the painting that is Eakins’s message; it is instead the appeal for freedom, for something truly natural.

McFeely departs most dramatically from previous biographers in his treatment of Eakins’s marriage. Adams thought the childless marriage was an unhappy one, with no signs of sexual intimacy, and quoted Charles Bregler’s remark that “Mrs. Eakins was kinda killed when she married.” Perhaps he meant killed as an artist—Susan Eakins only resumed her career after her husband’s death—but the remark is still arresting. Kirkpatrick, predictably, reports that “by all accounts, married life thoroughly agreed with Eakins, as it did with his bride.” McFeely proposes a third alternative: “It was a marriage made not in heaven, but in Philadelphia by two adults fully understanding each other.”

McFeely is not the first to suggest that Eakins’s friendship with his former student Samuel Murray, a sculptor and son of a Philadelphia gravedigger, was the principal intimate relationship of his final years. They shared a studio for many years, explored the countryside in one another’s company, and Murray helped nurse Eakins during his final illness. But McFeely may be the first to suggest that Susan Eakins had a comparable intimacy with the Eakinses’ longtime houseguest Mary Adeline Williams. (Others have suggested that Eakins himself had an affair with Williams.) McFeely has only one piece of evidence to support this claim: that a generous bequest of Eakins’s work to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1929 and 1930 was made as the “Gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss Mary Adeline Williams.” McFeely’s Portrait ends with what sounds like a wishful fantasy:

What was the nature of Sue and Addie’s relationship? The joint gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art makes it clear how central Sue thought it to be. There is no evidence, of course, of its being a sexual one, but, living hostage to the Great Man’s unsold canvases, stacked against the walls of the house, we can perhaps hope that they found a chance at love out of the way of his shadow.

Thomas Eakins would have wanted them to.


So, then, who was Thomas Eakins? One is left with the impression of an artist who liked to shock, in his work and in his personal behavior. He seems to have tried to bring some of the anarchy and theatrical élan of the art school into his own daily life, with predictably explosive results. Philadelphia matrons did not expect to be fondled like Parisian girls; even art students were surprised by Eakins’s penchant for telling dirty jokes and exposing himself in their presence. For emotionally unstable students like Ella Crowell and Lillian Hammitt, the anarchic and sexually liberated mood Eakins maintained in his studio seems to have led to misunderstandings. Visitors to Eakins’s studio had to contend with the occasional mayhem unleashed by Bobby, his pet monkey. With increasing intensity as he entered his forties, Eakins relished pushing the boundaries of acceptable adult behavior, but whether he did so by choice or compulsion, with pleasure or puzzlement, remains unclear. Perhaps he felt neurotically driven, or perhaps he saw himself as liberated from Victorian strictures. There is no necessary contradiction between the two.

We bring to paintings our own expectations, and it is difficult not to feel that Eakins’s three most recent biographers “saw only what they brought”—to quote an earlier Henry Adams regarding responses to Saint-Gaudens’s monument for his dead wife. An art historian trained to find ambiguity and conflict in art finds these qualities in Eakins. A biographer and crime writer with an old-fashioned belief in art as the expression of beauty finds beauty exalted in Eakins’s paintings. And a historian finds confirmation in Eakins’s gloomy paintings for his own assessment of the waning of American ideals during the final decades of the nineteenth century.

Amid such warring interpretations, it is easy to lose sight of the complex appeal of a painting like Swimming. Perhaps it can be seen as the work of a man who is turning forty, as Eakins was in 1884, looking ruefully at a scene of youthful physical vitality. The mood of the painting is that of Et in arcadia ego—death too is in Arcadia—as Erwin Panofsky elaborated the theme in his famous essay on Poussin.3 The ruined foundation of stone in Eakins’s painting, the remnants of an abandoned mill, stands in for the ruins of classical art, and serves as a reminder of his own decaying body hidden in the water. Eakins’s anxieties about aging, as he moved into late adulthood, suggest possible sources for much of his behavior during the mid-1880s: the loincloth incident, which he knew might get him fired; the emotional breakdown; the regressive move back into his parents’ house; the uneasy marriage which “nearly killed” his wife; the high-spirited trip out west; the emotional tie to a young man, Sam Murray, whom he met while wandering gloomily in a graveyard; and the fascination with an old man, Whitman, who had maintained an appealingly bohemian mode of life until the end.

Many critics have compared Swimming with Whitman’s poignant poem about “Twenty-eight young men” bathing by the shore, and the lonely woman (“Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome”) who watches them on the sly. The painting reminds me even more strongly of a once-popular poem from my childhood in Indiana, “The Old Swimmin’-Hole” by James Whitcomb Riley, first published a year before Eakins started his painting.4 Beneath its folksy veneer, Riley’s final stanza effectively captures the speaker’s rueful recognition of change, inevitable decay, and impending death:

Oh! The old swimmin’-hole! When I last saw the place,
The scenes was all changed, like the change in my face;
The bridge of the railroad now crosses the spot
Whare the old divin’-log lays sunk and fergot.
And I stray down the banks whare the trees ust to be—
But never again will theyr shade shelter me!
And I wish in my sorrow I could strip to the soul,
And dive off in my grave like the old swimmin’-hole.

If one purpose of art, in portraiture and landscape, is to recognize such changes, then Thomas Eakins succeeded as well as any American artist.

This Issue

March 29, 2007