Friday 6 July 2012

Thomas Eakins - part 1

Self-Portrait 1902 
oil on canvas 76.2 x 63.5 cm

This is part 1 of a 6-part post on the works of American artist Thomas Eakins. Parts 1 – 4 will 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.

He was a leading naturalist and one of the era's strongest painters of the current scene. Thomas Eakins was born in 1844 in Philadelphia. After his graduation from Central High School, he studied for 5 years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he drew chiefly from casts. To make up for his lack of study of living models, he entered Jefferson Medical College and took the regular courses in anatomy, including dissecting cadavers and observing operations.

In 1866 Eakins entered the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris for three years. He also travelled in Italy and Germany. In December 1869 he went to Spain, In Madrid's Prado Museum his discovery of 17th-century Spanish painting, especially the work of Diego Velázquez and Jusepe de Ribera, came as a revelation after the insipidity of the French Salons. After a winter in Seville, Eakins went back to Paris. In July 1870 he returned to Philadelphia, where he would live for the rest of his life, never going abroad again.

His first American paintings were scenes of outdoor life in and around the city - rowing on the Schuylkill River, sailing and fishing on the Delaware River, hunting in the New Jersey marshes--and domestic genre picturing his family and friends in their homes. The most important work of this period was the Gross Clinic (1875), portraying the great surgeon Samuel D. Gross operating before his students in Jefferson Medical College. The painting shocked the public and critics but established Eakins's reputation as a leader of American naturalism.

Eakins had an unusual combination of artistic and scientific gifts. Anatomy, higher mathematics, and the science of perspective were major interests to him and played an essential part in his painting. As early as 1880, he was using photography as an aid to painting, as a means of studying the body and its actions, and as an independent form of pictorial expression. In 1884 he collaborated with the pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge in photographing the motion of men and animals, but Eakins improved on Muybridge's method of employing a battery of cameras by using a single camera.

A natural teacher, in 1876 Eakins began teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy and in 1879 became acting head of the school. Discarding old-fashioned methods, he subordinated drawing from casts to painting from models, and based instruction on thorough study of the human body, including anatomy courses and dissection - innovations that were to revolutionize art education in America. But his stubborn insistence on the nude, particularly the completely nude male model in lectures on anatomy, scandalized the academy trustees and the more proper women students, and he was forced to resign in 1886. Most of his men students seceded from the academy and started the Art Students' League of Philadelphia, which continued for about 7 years, with Eakins as its unpaid head.

Until his early 40s Eakins had painted varied aspects of contemporary life, outdoors and indoors, as well as many portraits. But the academy affair and the lack of popular success for his paintings (at 36 he had sold only nine pictures for a total of a little over $2,000) probably explain why in the middle 1880s he abandoned his picturing of the broader American scene, except occasionally, and concentrated on portraiture.

Those who sat for his portraits were not the wealthy and fashionable, but his friends and students and individuals who attracted him by their qualities of mind - scientists, physicians, fellow artists, musicians, the Catholic clergy. Commissions were rare. Usually Eakins asked sitters to pose, then gave them the paintings. Even so, his sitters often did not bother to take their portraits, so that he was left with a studio full of them. After the 1880s he suffered increasing neglect from the academic art world - or actual opposition, as when they refused to exhibit the masterpiece of his mature years, the Agnew Clinic (1889). In spite of this lack of recognition, he continued to work in the same uncompromisingly realistic style, and some of his strongest works were painted during the 1900s. Finally, in old age, he received a small shower of honors.

In 1884 Eakins had married Susan Hannah Macdowell, a former pupil and a gifted painter. They had no children but many students and friends. Fortunately he had a modest income from his father, and they lived in the family home, where he had lived since childhood. He died there in 1916.

1868-69 Study of a Girl's Head 
oil on canvas

1870-71 Carmelita Requena 
oil on canvas 53.3 x 43.2 cm

c1870-75 Mrs. James W. Crowell 
oil on canvas 61 x 51 cm

1871 Max Schmitt in a Single Scull 
oil on canvas 81.9 x 117.5 cm

c1871 Home Scene 
oil on canvas 54.4 x 45.7 cm

1872 The Pair Oared Shell 
oil on canvas 61 x 91.4 cm

1873 The Biglin Brothers Racing 
oil on canvas

In the decade following the Civil War, rowing was one of America's most popular spectator sports, and Philadelphia the sport's American capital. When the Biglin brothers, champion oarsmen from New York, visited Philadelphia in the early 1870s, Thomas Eakins made a number of paintings and drawings of them, including this 1872 painting, which includes a crowd of spectators on the shore.

1873 The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake Boat 
oil on canvas 153 x 102.2 cm

1873-74 Elizabeth Crowell with a Dog 
oil on canvas

1873-74 John Biglin in a Single Scull 
oil on canvas

1873-74 John Biglin in a Single Scull 
watercolour on paper 49.1 x 63.2 cm

1874 Sailboats Racing on the Delaware 
oil on canvas 91.4 x 61 cm

1874 Starting Out after Rail 
oil on canvas 50.8 x 61 cm

1874 Starting Out after Rail 
watercolour on paper

1874 The Oarsmen aka The Schreiber Brothers 
oil on canvas 61 x 91.4 cm

1874 Whistling for Plover 
watercolour 28.7 x 42.4 cm

c1874 The Artist and His Father Hunting Reed-Birds on the Cohansey Marshes 
oil on canvas 43.5 x 67.3 cm

1875 Baseball Players Practising 
watercolour 32.6 x 27.5 cm

1875 Drifting 

1875 Elizabeth at the Piano 
oil on canvas 183.2 x 122.4 cm

1875 The Gross Clinic 
oil on canvas 243.8 x 198.1 cm

In 1875, as preparations began for the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, Eakins fixed upon Dr. Gross as the ideal subject for a painting to display at America's first world's fair. Dr. Gross is presented in the act of lecturing to students seated in a surgical amphitheatre while he operates on a young patient suffering from an infected thigh bone. Included in the portrait is a barely recognisable self-portrait of Eakins, located near the right edge of the work.

The medical procedures featured in The Gross Clinic met with all of the accepted standards of the mid-19th century. In April 1875, at the exact time that Eakins was beginning work on The Gross Clinic, a medical convention hosted by the Pathological Society of London debated the germ theory. Many of the attending doctors endorsed conventional views that discounted the role of bacteria-spread infections. The fact that Dr. Gross is operating while clad in his street clothes is thus far less significant than the professional way that his associate, Dr. Daniel Appel, uses his retractor to keep open the incision made by Gross’ scalpel. Equally noteworthy is the napkin soaked with chloroform being held over the patient’s face by the anaesthetist, Dr. W. Joseph Hearn.

1875-76 Gross Clinic 
ink and watercolour on cardboard 60.3 x 48.9 cm

1876 Baby at Play 
oil on canvas 122.9 x 81.9 cm

1876 Portrait of Dr. John H. Brinton 
oil on canvas

1876 Rail Shooting 
oil on canvas 56.2 x 76.8 cm

1876 The Chess Player 
oil on canvas 29.8 x 42.6 cm