Into the Light: Susan Macdowell Eakins, more than the artist’s wife

Susan Macdowell Eakins (1851–1938), Thomas Eakins (c 1920-25), oil on canvas, 127 x 101.6 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. The Athenaeum.

Like many artists, Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) married another artist, Susan Hannah Macdowell (1851–1938), better known under her married name of Susan Macdowell Eakins. Like many artists’ wives, their lives, careers, and works have been largely forgotten. Indeed, several authoritative sources assert that “after her marriage, Susan Eakins gave up painting to devote herself to assisting her husband and, later, establishing his reputation.”

This article looks at the few examples of her work that I have been able to find (and can show here), and the truth of that statement, particularly in the light of the common acceptance that she was an example of the New Woman of the nineteenth century.

Born to a father who was an engraver, photographer, and painter in Philadelphia, she showed early drawing skills and interest in art. She was given an attic studio when still a girl, and encouraged. When she was 25, she attended an exhibition in the Hazeltine Gallery, saw Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic (1875), and was impressed by it. She met the artist there, and decided to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which then had a reputation for being one of the best (if not the best) art school in the US.

Susan Eakins started studying at the Academy in 1876, the same year that her sister Elizabeth started there, and Cecilia Beaux, and the year that Thomas Eakins started working there as an unpaid volunteer assistant to Professor Christian Schussele. Susan studied there for six years, during which she won prizes, including the Mary Smith prize for the best painting by a matriculating woman artist.

Thomas Eakins was not appointed Professor at the Academy until after Schussele died in 1879. Susan campaigned for women artists to be included in life classes using nude models, an issue which eventually led to Thomas’s forced resignation from his post as Director there in 1886.

Susan and Thomas became engaged just after she left the Academy in 1882, and married on 19 January 1884. They had no children, and current opinion is that Thomas Eakins was attracted to men and may have been a homosexual; however, there is also evidence attesting to his heterosexuality, so the issue remains unresolved in spite of much modern discussion of the homoeroticism of some of his paintings and photographs.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), The Artist’s Wife and His Setter Dog (1884-89), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 58.4 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Her husband used Susan as a model for some of his paintings, including (probably) as a nude figure in his Arcadia (c 1883). The sole portrait which he appears to have painted of her is The Artist’s Wife and His Setter Dog (1884-89). Interestingly the one work hanging on the walls which can be identified readily is Thomas Eakins’ sculpted relief of Arcadia, which features Susan as a model.

Susan Macdowell Eakins (1851–1938), Woman in a Plaid Shawl (1872), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

If dated correctly, Susan’s Woman in a Plaid Shawl (1872) is an astonishing portrait in oils for a twenty-one year-old before training, and can only reflect a very well-spent childhood.

Susan Macdowell Eakins (1851–1938), Gentleman and a Dog (1878), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, VA. Wikimedia Commons.

Gentleman and a Dog (1878) shows how rapidly she developed during her early years at the Academy. Although composed quite differently, there are interesting parallels with Thomas’ portrait of Susan almost a decade later. Thomas Eakins has been quoted as asserting that she was more adept with colour than he was, and that is reflected here.

Susan Macdowell Eakins (1851–1938), Two Sisters (1879), oil on canvas, 146.1 x 116.2 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Although this image of her Two Sisters (1879) appears to have had excessive contrast adjustment, this is a complex double-portrait which appears to have worked very well indeed.

Susan Macdowell Eakins (1851–1938), Portrait of a Lady (1880), oil on canvas, 45.7 x 41.3 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

During her training, Susan developed a clear preference for portraiture, and completed many quite innovative portraits while still a student. Her Woman Seated or Portrait of a Lady (1880) declares her interest in Japonisme, for instance, in the fan, and puts the subject’s head in profile, looking off to the right.

Susan Macdowell Eakins (1851–1938), Still Life (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Susan also painted many still lifes, of which this undated example appears to come from her earlier period, with its Japonisme.

Susan Macdowell Eakins (1851–1938), Woman Reading (1879-84), oil on canvas, 96.5 x 71.1 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Gift of Julius Rauzin, 1995), New York, NY. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Woman Reading is presumed to have been painted before her marriage in 1884, but appears more consistent in style with some of her works from the period after Thomas’s death. It features another touch of Japonisme, perhaps, in the decorated plate peeping out from the curtain behind.

I have been unable to locate any usable images of her paintings made during her marriage to Thomas between 1884-1916. Of the 87 paintings of hers listed in her Wikipedia article (from a SIRIS database search), eight are attributed to that period, indicating that although she was less active in her studio, she did not by any means ‘give up painting’. Indeed it is well-documented that during the period of their marriage, Susan maintained her own studio, separate from that of her husband.

She also became an active photographer; unlike Thomas, for whom photography was primarily a sketchbook for his paintings, Susan explored photography as a new art medium. In 1898 she became a member of and started to exhibit with the Philadelphia Photographic Salon. She also exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1905, but did not have any solo exhibitions of her paintings or photographs during her lifetime.

When Thomas died in 1916, at the age of 71, she was 65, and immersed herself in painting daily. Some of her first works then inevitably worked through her grief, with titles such as Anguish (1916). But her style quickly became brighter, looser, and higher in chroma.

Susan Macdowell Eakins (1851–1938), Thomas Eakins (c 1920-25), oil on canvas, 127 x 101.6 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. The Athenaeum.

The one painting of hers from this period which I have been able to locate and use is one of her most remarkable: her posthumous portrait of her husband, Thomas Eakins (c 1920-25).

There are two other important paintings of hers from this period which are well worth viewing, although I cannot include their images here: her Self-Portrait (1910-20), and the thoroughly painterly The Tennis Player (1933).

Susan Eakins has not been entirely forgotten since her death in 1938. Her works did not have the benefit of the care which she had taken over Thomas’s after his death: she carefully preserved his paintings and photographs, and gave some of the finest to museums and collections, ensuring that his works are now largely intact. After her death, much of their remaining works were destroyed or damaged by executors, and it was only through the efforts of one of Thomas’s former students that many were salvaged. But while Thomas’s The Gross Clinic sold for a record $68 million in 2006, Susan’s paintings are worth but a tiny fraction.

Susan Eakins’ work was given its first solo exhibition in 1973, thirty-five years after her death.