Saturday, 14 July 2012

Thomas Eakins - part 5

This is part 5 of a 6-part post on the works of American artist Thomas Eakins. Parts 1 – 4 feature his paintings, parts 5 – 6 his photography. Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) was the most powerful figure painter and portrait painter of his time in America. For biographical notes on Eakins, and for earlier works, see parts 1 - 4.

Self Portrait c1884
In the 1880s, through a series of technical advances that greatly simplified its practice, photography had expanded from being the province solely of the specialist into an activity accessible to the millions. To define photography as a discipline distinct from its casual, commercial, and scientific applications became the overriding goal of many American artists in the last two decades of the century, who claimed for it a place commensurate with those artistic endeavors that celebrated the complex, irreducible subjectivity of their makers. The photographs of Thomas Eakins are a perfect example of this development.

In addition to being an accomplished painter, watercolourist and teacher, Thomas Eakins was a dedicated and talented photographer. Working with a wooden view camera, glass plate negatives, and the platinum print process, he distinguished himself from most other painters of his generation by mastering the technical aspects of the new medium and requiring his students to do the same. For Eakins, the camera was a teaching device comparable to anatomical drawing, a tool the modern artist should use to train the eye to see what was truly before it.

Although it is not known from whom or when Eakins learned photography, it is clear that by 1880 he had already incorporated the camera into his professional and personal life. The vast majority of photographs attributed to Eakins are figure studies (nude and clothed) and portraits of his pupils, extended family (including himself) and immediate friends. More than 225 negatives survive in the Bregler collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and approximately 800 images are currently attributed to Eakins and his circle—ample proof of the intensity with which Eakins worked with the camera.

Eakins did not generally use photographs as a preparatory aid to painting, although there are a small number of oils which have direct counterparts in existing photographs: the Amon Carter Museum's The Swimming Hole and the Metropolitan's Arcadia being the foremost examples:


1884-85 Swimming 
oil on canvas 69.4 x 92.2 cm
1883 photograph of Eakins' students at the site of "The Swimming Hole"

c1883 Arcadia 
oil on canvas 98.1 x 114.3 cm

c1883 Portrait of Eakins by Thomas Anshutz
To the contrary, Eakins saw a different role for photography- one related to his extraordinary interest in knowing the figure and improving his sensitivity to complex figure-ground relationships. Committed to teaching close observation through the practice of dissection and preparatory wax and plaster sculpture, Eakins introduced the camera to the American art studio. At first his photographs were likely quick studies of pose and gesture; later, perhaps during the process of editing and cropping the negatives, and then making enlarged platinum prints, he saw the photographs as discrete works of art on paper, at their best on equal status with his watercolours.

The artistic freedom of the classical world that Eakins strove to bring to life in his academic programs at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (and in his Arcadian paintings) also appears as an important element in many of his nude studies with the camera. These photographs, far more than the paintings, celebrate the male physique; even today, more than a century after their creation, their unabashed frontal nudity still has the power to shock contemporary eyes.

1880 Maggie Eakins and "Harry" with Woman with Parasol 
albumen silver print

1880 Maggie Eakins with "Harry" 
albumen silver print

1880 William J. Crowell with Ella 
albumen silver print 9.5 x 7.2 cm

1880-82 Maggie Eakins with "Harry" 
glass positive

1880-82 Maggie Eakins with "Harry" 
platinum print

1880-82 William H. Macdowell ( Eakins' father-in-law ) and Margaret Eakins in Saltville, Virginia 
platinum print 27.4 x 20 cm

1880s William H. MacDowell 
gelatin silver print

1880s ( Female Model, Hand to Head ) 
cyanotype

1880s ( Model in Grecian Dress ) 
albumen silver print

1880s ( Portrait of a Child )
 albumen silver print

1880s Amelia Van Buren with a Cat

1880s Eliza Cowperthwaite 
albumen silver print

1880s Elizabeth MacDowell Kenton 
albumen silver print

1880s Frank MacDowell 
glass positive

1880s George W. Holmes 
platinum print

1880s Mary Macdowell 
platinum print

1880s Miss Gilroy with Banjo 
platinum print

1880s Mrs. William H. Macdowell 
platinum print

1880s Susan MacDowell with Maggie Eakins, Ben, Will, and Artie Crowell 
glass positive

1880s ( Woman Playing Cello )
 platinum print

1880s William H. MacDowell 
albumen silver print

1880s William H. MacDowell 
platinum print

1880s William O'Donovan and a Lady 
platinum print

1880s-90s ( Mrs. Eakins or Her Sister Doll )
 albumen silver print

1881 Frances Eakins Crowell with the Horse called "Bess" 
albumen silver print

1883 Margaret Eakins 
glass positive 8.3 x 5.4 cm

1883 Two Pupils in Greek Dress 
platinum print 36.8 x 26.7 cm

1883 Two Boys Playing at the Creek, July 4, 1883 
albumen silver print 8.8 x 11.1 cm

c1883 Thomas Eakins and J. Laurie Wallace at the Shore 
platinum print 25.5 x 20.4 cm

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