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Thomas Eakins and the Uses of History

The first book-length study to explore the Philadelphia realist artist's lifelong fascination with historical themes, this examination of Eakins reveals that he envisioned his artistic legacy in terms different from those by which twentieth-century art historians have typically defined his art.

Thomas Eakins and the Uses of History

Akela Reason

2010 | 232 pages | Cloth $65.00
Fine Art
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Chapter 1. William Rush and the History of Art
Chapter 2. Thomas Eakins and the Colonial Revival
Chapter 3. Reenacting the Antique
Chapter 4. Behold the Man: Eakins's Crucifixion
Chapter 5. Collaboration and Commemoration in Public Sculpture
Conclusion. Rush Revisited: Eakins as Old Master


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


"The value of these works is permanent. They have nothing to do with passing or evanescent Art moods. They are outside of fad or fashion".—Cecilia Beaux

Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) drafted this appreciation of the work of fellow Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins on the occasion of the memorial exhibition held in his honor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1917. Although Beaux had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts while Eakins was teaching there, she claimed to have avoided his "magic circle" of student devotees, preferring to watch him "from behind staircases, and corners." Beaux respected Eakins's realist work and yet found it "deeply alien" to her own temperament. Indeed, the two artists had completely different careers. Beaux, hailed in her day as the "greatest living woman painter," became a successful portraitist particularly sought after for her elegant depictions of society women. Eakins was a portraitist too, but he had far fewer commissions and a number of dissatisfied sitters. Yet Beaux understood that Eakins's failings as an artist, marked by his lack of financial and sometimes critical success, were the products of a man who sought to become what he called a "big painter," an artist who transcended "evanescent Art moods" in order to establish a permanent legacy.

Unlike many of his peers, Eakins never painted to earn a living. He did not come from wealth but had an unusually supportive father in Benjamin Eakins, who encouraged his only surviving son to become a painter. Benjamin made Eakins's career possible by supplementing his son's meager income and providing him with room and board. Eakins lived in his father's house for most of his adult life and remained there after his father's death in 1899. Benjamin funded Eakins's artistic education in France at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts between 1866 and 1870. He subsidized Eakins's unpaid teaching posts at the Philadelphia Sketch Club and the Pennsylvania Academy and was no doubt proud when his son eventually became the director of the Academy's schools in 1882.

With Benjamin's support, there was no need for Eakins to paint within the confines of "fad or fashion." This circumstance, coupled with what Beaux called his "integrity of purpose," sent Eakins in artistic directions that few others pursued. He painted scenes from contemporary life: doctors performing surgery, men rowing on the Schuylkill River, baseball players, and the like. He painted these not only because they were part of his world but also because he believed that all great artists depicted their own time. And it is these images that most resonate with today's viewers. However, Eakins also painted and sculpted historical subjects throughout his life. The focus of these images on the past has frequently set them apart in larger evaluations of his career. As a result, these projects have often been viewed as anomalous episodes in an otherwise realist career, but they constitute a crucial aspect of Eakins's worldview as an artist. If great artists depicted their own time, they also took on epic themes that linked them to their predecessors.

Since his death, Eakins has become an American Old Master largely because of realist images such as The Gross Clinic, which depicts the Philadelphia physician Samuel D. Gross surgically removing a piece of dead bone from a young patient's leg. Indeed, when Jefferson Medical College controversially decided to sell the painting in 2006, Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., termed it "America's Night Watch"—referring to Rembrandt's well-known masterpiece in the Rijksmuseum. Although Eakins's contemporaries acknowledged the power of the painting, they also found it disturbing. However, Eakins valued his historical images as much as, if not more than, the portraits and contemporary genre pictures that we admire him for today. For example, in 1900, when Eakins wrote to John W. Beatty of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Institute that he intended to send his "best painting" to the institute's upcoming exhibition, he referred to Crucifixion (1880), his largest history painting and the only overtly religious work that he ever completed. Modern observers might find Crucifixion an unusual choice for "best painting" in a career so devoted to realism, but Eakins created this painting with the same ambition with which he painted The Gross Clinic.

Eakins painted both The Gross Clinic and Crucifixion without the certainty of any financial reward, as he had not received a commission for either of these large pictures. However, in the case of The Gross Clinic, Eakins clearly hoped that his daring and monumental image would appeal to Jefferson Medical College and that it also might bring him patrons appropriately desirous of such ambitious work. In this case, Eakins was able to find a home for the painting when the alumni association of Jefferson Medical College raised a meager two hundred dollars for its purchase a few years after its completion. Crucifixion was quite a different matter. In spite of the religious subject, Crucifixion is no church altarpiece. In fact, Protestant and Catholic viewers alike could find reason to object to Eakins's audacious reinvention of the centuries-old iconography. Many critics found the work as displeasing as The Gross Clinic for its representation of a realist Jesus, with clawlike hands, dirty feet, and caked-on blood. Eakins sent the work to numerous exhibitions conscious that it did not meet contemporary expectations for religious art. The painting never sold and often encountered negative press, yet Eakins maintained that it was his best work. Crucifixion, like many of his historical works, allowed Eakins to engage in a dialogue with the art historical past, and he hoped that it would one day be recognized as his masterpiece.

This book explores Eakins's complex reasons for choosing historical themes. More specifically, it proposes that he used these subjects to advance some of his most deeply held professional aspirations. Historical subjects were part of what he called "big painting"—timeless works that engaged with the art historical tradition. Through these works, it is possible to see how his consciousness of the art historical tradition influenced his teaching as well as guided the trajectory of his career. With respect to this tradition, he felt that a core set of artistic beliefs bound all great artists together—past, present, and future. Eakins's insistent placement of the historical works in major exhibitions alongside his powerful images of doctors and rowers reflects his desire to carve out a place within this tradition. Moreover, his partiality for these historical images makes clear that he envisioned his artistic legacy in different terms than those by which twentieth-century art historians have typically defined his art.

In keeping with his historical subject choices, Eakins developed a meticulous working method rooted in some of the oldest recorded artistic practices. For example, at a time when many of his peers were achieving success with bravura brushwork, he crafted tightly composed images that often built on a perspectival grid worthy of a Renaissance master. His technique was the result of many years of study. However, he would only realize the importance of such time-honored methods when he traveled to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. It was there that Eakins began to feel the depths of the tradition that had shaped the artistic profession for centuries. In Europe, he came to appreciate the work of the Old Masters and began to focus on producing the best work that he could "outside of fad or fashion." But he would not rely exclusively on tried and true artistic practices; he sought to integrate modern ideas into both his technique and his teaching—notably through the use of photography. Eakins felt that these innovations were critical to the continuing development of the art historical tradition into the modern age.

The following chapters examine how Eakins explored historical subject matter throughout every decade of his career in order to present his beliefs about his profession and his relationship to the art historical past. These subjects engage with the past in myriad ways, and my use of the term history will necessarily be fluid. As Randall Griffin has proposed, even in historical images "Eakins deliberately confronted the popular view that American themes were provincial and less interesting than foreign ones." As a consequence of this overarching belief in American subjects and in order to better integrate the historical subjects into Eakins's career, this study will include images of contemporary themes that relate to his historical works. Eakins's historical projects, like most of his works, are starkly different from those of his American contemporaries. The themes he chose were frequently obscure, sometimes requiring explanation. His method could seem at odds with his subject matter, as in the case of his Arcadian images, which are Greek in subject but almost anticlassical in style. Even when he chose a familiar theme like the Crucifixion, he created such an unusual composition that it sparked a great deal of criticism and debate in its own time and remains a bit of an enigma today.

This volume begins with Eakins's first fully realized history painting, William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River. When Eakins began the painting in 1875, he was primarily known for his contemporary genre scenes and for his portraits. Although admired for these works today, critics in the 1870s often regarded Eakins's attraction to these contemporary subjects as eccentric. Such critics typically acknowledged Eakins's tremendous ability as a draftsman but hoped someday to see his talent put to "better use." Eakins attempted to meet this challenge with William Rush, a complex work that is equal parts portrait, genre, and history painting. The painting also boldly elaborates upon well-established European art historical precedents. Initiated as he was completing the Rembrandtian Gross Clinic, this image reflects upon the career of one of the first native-born sculptors in America, an American Old Master, in the days before anyone knew that such a person could exist. Eakins's reasons for focusing on Rush have to do with the understanding of art history that Eakins developed as an art student in Paris. In the painting, Eakins defined sculpture as the pinnacle of the arts and boldly elevated an American sculptor to a position of distinction within the medium. Eakins developed the idea for this picture as the notion of an American art history was just coalescing. In addition, he addressed the position of the model within the Western tradition, particularly the associations, dating back to antiquity, of immorality with the female models who posed for sculptors. By referring to an American past, a classical past, and his own time, Eakins suggested a new role for the female nude model—recasting her as a noble and virtuous woman.

Continuing into the 1880s, Eakins used the colonial past to reconsider the position of the burgeoning group of female students attending his classes at the Pennsylvania Academy in a series of works that feature women knitting, spinning, and sewing in old-fashioned dress. Eakins's advocacy of women in the arts was marred by a deeper ambivalence about their capabilities. In his depictions of colonial women, Eakins tapped into contemporary theories regarding nervous exhaustion among educated women by glorifying a simpler past when robust women engaged in traditional women's work. His colonial images gradually evolved into classical ones. With slight modifications of costume and setting, he soon became immersed in a fully classical idiom.

Eakins's classicizing Arcadian subjects reflect a new approach to teaching that he began to explore at the Pennsylvania Academy in the mid-1880s. He derived his new method from the writings of the little-known French artist Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran. Lecoq achieved notoriety for the innovative curriculum he developed for the Ecole Gratuite de Dessin in Paris. While his system emphasized the cultivation of memory in budding young artists, it was also rooted in the classical tradition. Lecoq's students studied models in classical attire in interiors and completely nude out-of-doors. Beginning around 1882, Eakins also began dressing models in classical costume and studying nude bodies outdoors. Eakins presented his adaptation of Lecoq's ideas to the Academy when he painted Swimming, a contemporary genre scene that evokes classical subjects, for one of its directors in 1885. Shortly thereafter, Eakins's experiment was curtailed by his forced resignation from his teaching position at the Academy in 1886.

As Elizabeth Milroy has shown, Eakins painted Crucifixion in 1880 as a demonstration of his skill as a mature professional artist. Eakins took this staple of Old Master painting and crafted a new iconography, which he based on liberal religious texts that presented Jesus as a historical figure. Eakins's image depicts a human Jesus, stripped of his divinity, enduring physical torment on the cross. Eakins's modern Jesus created a stir among critics, garnering him more attention in the press—both positive and negative—than he had ever before received for any of his works. In the year after his dismissal from the Academy, Eakins may have invested the painting with a poignant new meaning as he came to identify with Jesus and used the work as a symbol of his own martyrdom. Shortly thereafter, Eakins continued to assert the value of the painting as his best work by placing it almost exclusively in international venues, where it could be seen in the context of a broader art historical tradition.

Eakins's most ambitious and public venture into historical terrain came in the 1890s with his work on two large Beaux-Arts sculpture projects: the Trenton Battle Monument and the Brooklyn's Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in Grand Army Plaza. Although little known today, Eakins hoped that his public sculptures would become the crowning accomplishments of his career. In these works, Eakins reasserted the beliefs that he had outlined two decades earlier in his painting of William Rush, namely, that sculpture was the most difficult, and therefore the most significant, achievement any artist could master. Eakins labored over these sculptures in an effort to endow them with the strength of classical art. Unfortunately, Eakins's fastidious technique brought him into conflict with his patrons and effectively severed his ties with those who might have helped him gain additional sculpture commissions.

In spite of such disappointments, sculpture remained on Eakins's mind, and around 1908 he returned again to the theme of William Rush carving his allegorical figure of the Schuylkill River. By this point, Eakins's critical reception had begun to change, with many of the works that had formerly faced negative reviews now hailed as masterpieces. In this period, critics even began to compare Eakins to the Old Masters. Eakins revisited Rush from this new vantage point. In an unprecedentedly large number of sketches and unfinished compositions, Eakins reworked the Rush subject, concluding it with an image in which he made the Federal sculptor, an American Old Master, resemble himself.

The arrangement of the chapters is roughly chronological; however, because I am interested in the reception of the images and consider the exhibition history of these works critical to their meaning, I have not strictly adhered to placing works within the book according to their date of execution. The most significant deviation is seen in the third and fourth chapters, which are reversed in terms of creation dates. Because I see the Arcadian works as important to understanding the beliefs that led to Eakins's departure from the Academy in 1886, I felt it useful to discuss these works before Crucifixion. In addition, because Crucifixion remained important to Eakins after his 1886 resignation, I view that work as crucial to his effort to restore his reputation in subsequent decades. Therefore it seems appropriate to situate this work after the Arcadian themes and Swimming, which remained little known and unexhibited after 1886.

Although I have framed the chapters as case studies of individual iconographic themes, I see these works as forming a cohesive project through which Eakins ruminated upon his profession and his place within the art historical tradition. Far from aberrations, these works were of great importance to Eakins and central to his artistic development. While he may have attained his Old Master status through paintings like The Gross Clinic, he envisioned his legacy differently. The historical images reflect Eakins's preoccupation with creating a permanent legacy apart from "evanescent Art moods." In this way, Eakins crafted his backward-looking historical works with an eye to the future.

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