Thomas Eakins: the centenary of his death

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), Between Rounds (1898-99), oil on canvas, 127.3 × 101.3 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

The year 1916 was pretty grim. In Europe, the Great War had been raging two years, at a prodigious cost in human life, and looked set to continue until all the fathers and sons in Europe lay dead in the icy mud. In the US, which did not enter the war until the following year, there was frustration at watching US citizens die – the previous year 128 were lost when the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed, for example.

America also lost two of its greatest artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), whom I have been celebrating in other articles, and Thomas Eakins (1844-1916). Eakins died in Philadelphia on 25 June 1916, at the age of 71. Chase and Eakins were almost complete opposites, but between them, their colleagues and many students, they laid the foundations for American art in the twentieth century.

Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he attended Central High School, and excelled in drawing. His father was a calligrapher and writing teacher, and at first that seems to have been Thomas Eakins’ direction too. From 1862, though, he studied drawing and anatomy at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and attended courses in anatomy at Jefferson Medical College in 1865.

He decided that France was the best place for education as an artist, so from 1866-70, he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he was a student of Jean-Léon Gérôme, and of Léon Bonnat – both meticulous and detailed realists. He developed a particular interest in painting nude figures. Before returning to the US, he spent six months in Spain, where he studied the Spanish masters, and completed some slightly looser paintings than he had worked on in Paris.

Arriving back in Philadelphia in 1870, he embarked on a group of rowing scenes, which came to a total of eleven oils and watercolours.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) (1871), oil on canvas, 81.9 × 117.5 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) (1871) is probably the most famous of these, the first in the series, and still an astonishing painting. Eakins’ friend and successful rower Max Schmitt is in the nearest boat, and Eakins (a keen oarsman himself) is the figure in the further single scull. It is meticulously detailed, even down to the puddles in the water made by Eakins’ oars as he rows into the distance, and its clouds are calligraphic.

This was shown among the first of his paintings to be publicly exhibited in Philadelphia, but its theme of a modern sport was felt to be a shock to artistic convention. The following year, Eakins painted his first full-length portrait, of Kathrin Crowell, to whom he became engaged two years later. Painting portraits then became an important part of his art, for the remainder of his active career.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), Starting Out After Rail (1874), oil on canvas mounted on masonite, 61.6 x 50.5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Starting Out After Rail (1874) shows two of Eakins’ friends sailing a ‘Delaware ducker’, setting off to hunt the small waders along the Delaware River. After preliminary studies, he painting this oil version, and one in watercolour. This was exhibited at Goupil’s gallery in Paris, and the following year was one of two accepted for the Paris Salon.

That year he turned his attention to painting the portraits of prominent professionals. He also sold his first painting, one of his original rowing scenes which is now lost, and became engaged to Kathrin Crowell.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) (1875), oil on canvas, 244 x 198.3 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) (1875) is a portrait of this eminent professor of surgery at work in a teaching theatre at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia. The operation, a conservative procedure to treat osteomyelitis of the femur, took place before the advent of aseptic technique, so instruments were clean but not sterile, and gloves and gowns were not worn. The patient, lying with their feet towards the viewer and their head under the anaethetist’s mask, would have been receiving a general anaesthetic using ether or chloroform.

Gross stands near the middle of the painting, a scalpel held in his bloodied right fingers. Behind and to the left is the only woman in the painting: not a nurse, but apparently the patient’s distressed mother. Although there was interest in initial photos of this painting, when he submitted it for exhibition the following year it was rejected as unsightly, and sent first to an Army hospital before returning to Jefferson Medical College.

In 1876, Eakins started as a volunteer teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy. The following year, following internal problems over his role, he moved to teach at the Art Students’ Union, but in 1878 returned to the Academy.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (1876-77), oil on canvas mounted on Masonite, 51.2 x 66.4 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (1876-77) is the first of three paintings which show William Rush, a wood sculptor, carving his Water Nymph and Bittern for a fountain in Philadelphia’s waterworks, in 1808. The water nymph is an allegory of the Schuylkill River, which was the city’s primary source of water at that time.

Rush had been a founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and an enthusiast for the use of nude models in art – as was Eakins. This painting was therefore, at least in part, an attempt to promote Rush’s name, and the practice of working from nude models. Eakins prepared thoroughly, as usual, in carving wax studies, and making a series of drawings and oil sketches.

Seated at the right of the model is a chaperone, more interested in her knitting. The model’s complicated clothing is hung and scattered in the light, as if to emphasise her total nudity (apart from a hair-band!), and the sculptor is working in the gloom at the left. Eakins anachronistially included several later works by Rush, as if to provide a resumé of his output.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (1908), oil on canvas, 91.3 × 121.5 cm, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Eakins returned to this motif thirty years later, and painted two further versions, including his William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (1908). These lack the scattered clothing, which had earlier been deemed ‘most shocking’, and rearrange the figures into what most consider an inferior composition.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), The Courtship (c 1878), oil on canvas, 50.8 × 61 cm, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

The Courtship (c 1878) was an attempt by Eakins to use a motif which would not cause offence. It shows a young woman busy spinning, while her young man sits at a distance and watches. Both are fully and properly dressed in colonial clothes. It has been suggested that one influence on Eakins here was Velázquez’s The Spinners (1657), although there is neither visual resemblance nor any narrative relationship between the paintings. In any case, spinning would have been quite a common and normal activity in the circumstances.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), The Dancing Lesson (Negro Boy Dancing) (1878), watercolour on off-white wove paper, 45.9 × 57.3 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

In Eakins’ watercolour The Dancing Lesson (Negro Boy Dancing) (1878), three African-Americans are seen together in a dancing school. Shown in the miniature portrait at the top left are Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad, emphasising collaboration between the generations. This was his first painting to be awarded a medal, at the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association in Boston that year.

In 1879, his fiancée died of meningitis, but in that autumn he was appointed Professor of Drawing and Painting at the Pennsylvania Academy. He was promoted to be its Director in 1882.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), Arcadia (c 1883), oil on canvas, 98.1 x 114.3 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), 1967), New York, NY. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Arcadia (c 1883) was an unusual venture into mythology, tackled using the most modern of methods: the camera. Eakins had bought his first camera in 1880, and started to use it as a photographic sketchbook. He was also involved in Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering photographic studies of human and animal motion.

In addition to a series of conventional studies, Eakins used several photographs to compose and paint this work, then a ‘magic lantern’ projector to incise marks on the canvas to aid his painting. Although it can be read as another step in his campaign for painting from life, it is also a quite painterly pastoral landscape. His fiancée Susan Macdowell (whom he married in 1884) was probably the model for the girl at the left.

William Merritt Chase bought this painting during Eakins’ lifetime, perhaps from the artist himself, and it was included in the sale of Chase’s effects which took place after their deaths.

Circle of Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), Eakins’s Students at the “The Swimming Hole” (1884), albumen silver print, 9.3 x 12.1 cm, The Getty Center, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

The next of Eakins’ paintings which I show here uses this albumen silver print by him or one of his friends, Eakins’s Students at the “The Swimming Hole” (1884).

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), Swimming (The Swimming Hole) (1885), oil on canvas, 70.2 × 93 cm, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

Together with other photos and various studies, Eakins then painted Swimming (The Swimming Hole) (1885). Appreciated today as one of the most important paintings in Americam art, and a masterpiece in the depiction of human form, it has various readings. Bathers have been a popular and recurrent theme in paintings since the dawn of the art, at times becoming obsessive (Cézanne). For Eakins they provided him with an ideal opportunity to show his figurative painting skills, and to continue to press his campaign on life modelling.

There is a deep irony in his choice of subject, which Eakins undoubtedly recognised. The same public who were shocked at a painting of naked people, or painting nude models in an art class, were quite used to seeing naked men swimming, even in public places – that was an accepted norm, so long as you did not take it into the studio or art class. It had been commissioned, and perhaps inevitably was refused, although Eakins was still paid in full. Visually at least, this painting may have influenced George BellowsForty-two Kids (1907).

In 1886, he was forced to resign from the Pennsylvania Academy because of his insistence on allowing his students to work from completely nude models, even when his class contained female students.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), Cowboys in the Badlands (1888), oil on canvas, 81.9 x 114.3 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The following year he started making studies for his next major painting, and stayed in the Bad Lands of Dakota for some weeks. The result was his Cowboys in the Badlands (1888), which combines a very American cowboy scene with an astonishing landscape, which would probably have appeared extraterrestrial to many on the East Coast.

He extended his teaching to include the Women’s Art School of the Cooper Union in New York, and then the National Academy of Design.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), The Agnew Clinic (1889), oil on canvas, 214.2 x 300.1 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

Previous experience with the reception of The Gross Clinic had perhaps discouraged him from painting in medical settings, but in 1889 students from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine persuaded him to accept a commission to paint their retiring professory of surgery, Dr. David Hayes Agnew. Eakins worked long hours to complete The Agnew Clinic (1889) in the three months allowed.

This fine painting shows how surgery had advanced in just fourteen years. Under the bright artificial light in the middle of the teaching theatre, the surgeon is performing a partial mastectomy. The patient is here shown at a more conventional angle, and no incisions are visible. The surgeons now wear gowns, although full asepsis with gloves, hats, etc., had yet to be introduced. A similar volatile liquid general anaesthetic is being used, administered via a mask.

The only woman present, apart from the patient, is now a nurse, Mary Clymer, although nurses had not yet developed specialist operating roles, and she is dressed for the ward, not handling instruments. The figure at the far right, on the edge of the canvas, is Eakins, allegedly painted by his wife.

Despite the care that Eakins had taken to avoid the problems of his previous painting, this work was rejected by the Society of American Artists, and brought about his resignation from that society in 1892.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), The Concert Singer (1890-92), oil on canvas, 191 x 137.9 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

With The Concert Singer (1890-92), Eakins concentrated more on portraits, and this was his first full-length portrait of a woman, the singer Weda Cook (1867-1937). She was known for her powerful contralto voice, and Eakins reduced distractions so that the painting is almost exclusively about Cook. There is just the glimpse of a potted palm, the disembodied conductor’s hand and baton, and a bouquet of roses thrown at her feet.

Eakins and Cook fell out late during the painting of this work, apparently over Eakins’ repeated insistence that he wanted her to pose disrobed. In the end he had to complete it using just her dress and shoes, but the two were reconciled three years later.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), Miss Amelia Van Buren (c 1891), oil on canvas, 114.3 x 81.3 cm, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

While Eakins was still painting Cook’s portrait, he completed that of Miss Amelia Van Buren (c 1891). Van Buren (c 1856-1942) came from Detroit, and studied under Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1884-85, and Van Buren remained friends with Eakins and his wife afterwards, staying with them from time to time. Although it attracted little interest at the time, since then it has grown in stature, and is now accepted as one of Eakins’ finest works.

In 1893, eleven paintings of his were shown at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, and he was awarded a medal. In 1896, his only solo exhibition was held in Philadelphia – this was a critical success, but no sales resulted. The following year he ceased regular teaching.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), Between Rounds (1898-99), oil on canvas, 127.3 × 101.3 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

Towards the end of the century, Eakins returned to some of his earlier sporting themes, in particular painting several depictions of boxing matches at the Philadelphia Arena. Some of these may have showed reconstructions of specific fights, but his Between Rounds (1898-99) is invented, constructed carefully from an assembly of individual studies. For their time and place, they were radical, and must have influenced George Bellows when he painted boxing matches around twenty-five years later.

In his later years, Eakins suffered failing eyesight, and became increasingly immobile. He died on 15 June 1916.



Sewell D (2001) Thomas Eakins, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 09111 3.