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Thomas Eakins: an American oddity

The great realist painter ignored scandal to depict his nation’s outdoor life on his own terms.

By Michael Prodger

Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) was America’s great realist, both on canvas and in the way he lived an unapologetic life. His friend, the poet Walt Whitman, testified to the former: “I never knew of but one artist, and this is Tom Eakins, who could resist the temptation to see what they think ought to be rather than what is.” The latter trait, meanwhile, was to make him a figure of controversy for much of his career.

Eakins’s psychology was undoubtedly non-standard for his position and times: he swore with relish, told dirty jokes regardless of his audience, eschewed trousers while walking around his house, drank milk in near industrial quantities, was of indeterminate sexuality, and his obsession with the naked body led him into inappropriate behaviour. But he also produced some of the most memorable images of late 19th-century America – astute portraits of its citizens, the medical procedures of its hospitals, its sporting and recreational life – as well as being a pioneering photographer who helped uncover the mysteries of human motion.

For Eakins, art was something to be practised on his own terms. Although he is now hailed as one of America’s most significant painters, his work was not widely recognised by his contemporaries. He sold perhaps only 30 paintings during his lifetime and many of his portraits, even of friends and family, were not well-received. A number were refused outright, because their subjects found in them a lack of flattery and an unnerving acuity that revealed a side to themselves they either didn’t recognise or didn’t want on display. Nevertheless, he was unrepentant in his particular realism: “Strain your brain more than your eye,” he said, “You can copy a thing to a certain limit. Then you must use intellect.” It was that intellect that unsettled.

[See also: How Edvard Munch turned his personal fears into universal symbols]

Eakins grew up in Philadelphia and attended both art school and anatomy lessons at medical college. He may have briefly considered becoming a surgeon but his fascination with the human body was really focused on its use in paintings. For any would-be figurative painter, he believed, an understanding of musculature was vital.

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At 22, he travelled to France to study further, although there may have been another reason to cross the Atlantic too: a later report noted that Eakins was “very loose sexually – went to France, where there are no morals, and the french morality suited him to a T”. It was in Spain, however, with the paintings of Velázquez and Jusepe de Ribera, that he found examples to follow. Their work, he wrote, was “so good so strong so reasonable so free from every affectation. It stands out like nature itself.” On his return to Philadelphia in 1870, “like nature itself” became his watchwords.

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Eakins was a keen sportsman and among the first works he produced as a mature artist were a series of pictures showing scullers on the Delaware River. They have become foundational images of America’s outdoors culture and show his method of including portraits even in genre scenes, as well as the unclothed – or partially clothed – body (and a homoeroticism: a naked woman, he said, “is the most beautiful thing there is – except a naked man, but I never saw a study of one exhibited”). They are not spontaneous pictures, but diligently composed from preparatory drawings with the perspectival points carefully worked out.

This painting, Pushing for Rail (1874), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is one of several pictures he made after trips to the tidal marshes of the Delaware to hunt waterfowl with his father and friends. Its unusual wide, horizontal format gives a sense of the flat emptiness of the flooded and weed-clogged waterways, and the sky takes up fully two thirds of the picture. It is the three pairs of deftly separated figures that moor the scene, the poles of the “pushers” each at a different angle while the sportsmen are shown at consecutive stages – loading, readying and firing their fowling pieces. The pair on the left seem oblivious of the fact that a bird has just flown above their heads, putting them dangerously in the line of fire of the hunter on the right.

[See also: The Brazilian landscapes of Frans Post capture the dismal dawn of the colonial age]

A few years earlier Eakins had written to his father that: “The big artist does not sit down monkey-like and copy a coal scuttle or an ugly old woman like some Dutch painters have done nor a dung pile, but he keeps a sharp eye on nature and steals her tools. He learns what she does with light, the big tool, and then colour then form and appropriates them to his own use.” This is what he does here. He floods the scene with light, painting the marsh weeds as yellow rather than green, while leaving the sun out of view; he gives the central figure a bright red shirt to draw the eye; he hints at the wateriness of the landscape with small patches of blue among the plants and a strip of river in the distance. A smattering of sails gives points of verticality to alleviate the flatness. And the swarthy poler on the left looks out at the viewer, bringing them into the tableau.

The promise of Eakins’s early works failed to materialise, however. He poured his best efforts into a painting of the anatomist Dr David Gross at work mid-operation, a nod to Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp, and while the picture is now lauded, it sold for a mediocre $200. Rumour and scandal followed him too: his niece Ella died by suicide after telling her parents of his “degrading touch” and there may also have been something incestuous about his relationship with his sister Margaret.

He proved an inspirational teacher and then director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he treated male and female students equally and encouraged the use of photography as a study aid. But his insistence on the primacy of the naked model – sometimes the students themselves – drew comment. When a female student asked him about the movement of the pelvis, Eakins took her to his studio, undressed and “gave her the explanation as I could not have done by words only”. Finally, when he pulled the loincloth off a male life model in front of female students he was encouraged to resign. His own family publicly stood against him as the furore intensified and Eakins left for a ranch in North Dakota, hoping that life among the cowboys would cure the depression that enveloped him.

Back on that trip to the marshes to shoot rail in 1873 Eakins had caught malaria, but perhaps the tainted blood was there all along.

[See also: Cornelia Parker exposes the hidden meanings of everyday objects]

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This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson