Thomas Eakins – The Skills and the Controversies (1844-1916) – Realist Painter

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Self Portrait by Thomas Eakins


Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins is a name written with golden ink on the pages of American art history. He was born in the hometown of Philadelphia, America in 1844. He is remembered as one of the most successful and pioneer artists in America compared to another great American artist John Singleton Copley. In the less artistic environment in America then of Italy, Eakins has been emerged as among the first realist painters who fought their way through society’s obstructions and tried to pursue their goals without changing their firm mentalities. This kind of artist became the backbone of the today’s full understandings of the unprecedented requirements in arts, which were not occurred in history or one didn’t have the courage to do so.

Thomas Eakins’ endeavors in perfecting his art and reaching out to the reality of the subject for a perfect portrayal fell out of the circle of social acceptance. He insisted to learn more about human anatomy with nude models and exhorted to give the ‘same education’ to male and female students in regards. That seen unethical in the late 19th era were the female education itself was on very few encouragements.

Though, Eakins stuck to his firm belief on educating people without considering their sex. We can say that he was one of the first to recommend providing similar education for both sexes, though he was concentrated in the artistic fields while recommending.

Artist with such knowledge and strong beliefs could not go unnoticed when we are learning about the history of arts.

The Skills: Painting and Motion Photography

Gaining any skill is not one day’s job or there is no magic trick in it, as most people unconsciously believe. The perfection you admire in the well-known artists works was not achieved by harry potter’s wand. Sometimes, people are gifted with their skills but in most of the cases it is just a result of many years’ practice and dedication.

At the age of 12, Eakins drew a map of Switzerland and then another combined map of France, Spain, Portugal and Italy. The depiction were précised and well-lined. At the learning stage, he drew various things, objects, scenes and portraits. But, after much practice his heart set upon portraying people. He focused on people around him to portray them on his canvas. As the fascination grew, he wanted more reality and understanding of the human anatomy, for which he started to depict nudes. By the age of 24,   as it is stated in the book The Ache in Eakins by John Updike.

In short, the realism he accepted was cultivated from his insistence to depict the real and most natural portrayal of anything. It doesn’t matter if it a landscape, animals or the humans. He wanted them to be portrayed in the actual conditions. This could be the seed of the realism in his paintings.

His paintings grew with the skill and perfection in them with the factor of realism. In his early stage, his major productions like Max Schmitt in a single Scull (1871 – shown below), Home Scene (1871), Elizabeth at the Piano (1875) and The Chess Players (1876). All of them depicted the reality of the subject with beautiful composition. It didn’t have any artistic add-ons in them due to which the critics were inspired to take a glance upon the real models and the environments on which the artist produced his works. After the comparisons, critics acclaimed Eakins’s works. That’s the first big recognition and admiration for him.

Max Schmitt in a Single Scull by Thomas Eakins

1 ‘Max Schmitt in a single scull’ if you take a closer look at the painting, the boat in the background consists the writing by the artist ‘Eakins 1871’

His other notable works throughout his lifetime are The Gross Clinic, The Agnew Clinic, Portrait of Maud Cook, Miss Amelia Van Buren, Wrestlers and The Swimming Hole.

To extrude more to understand the movements of human body, Eakins became interested in photography, particularly in Motion Photography. Maybe the idea to use photography to understand occurred to him from one of his students Amelia Van Buren, who herself became a good photographer in later years.

Eakins used photography to capture the fast movements of a person in many frames and then to study them. Here is an example:

Study in The Human Motion by Eakins Thomas

As we see here, there are approximately seven different positions of a boy jumping. It dissects the action of jumping into different parts, which could be helpful to understand the human motion with more accuracy. This could be very difficult to understand by making a boy jump again and again even for a whole day. Here, you get the still image for every action.

Recognizing this privilege gained from photography, he used it intensively capturing more photos and actions of human and even animals. Thus, from a totally different intention of learning the movements of human-anatomy emerged the new direction in photography called Motion Photography. And you would be surprised to know that today, he- a painter by profession -is considered as the innovator of the new field and not a photographer.

‘Naked series’ was a compilation of nude photographs of his students, professional models, men, women and even his wife. The photographs were hung on the walls of the art-school for the general observations and study.

This bold teaching style boiled out the society’s tolerance and the upheaval of his fame and skill occurred when he was dismissed from the academy where he taught for free.

The Controversies

He famously said “A teacher can do very little for a pupil & should only be thankful if he don’t hinder him … and the greater the master, mostly the less he can say.”  To which he stuck for his entire life. He taught at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1876 as a volunteer and then after gradually, he reached at the post of director in 1882. This proves that he was a beloved teacher among the teachers and the authorities.

But, one shocking fact is that he was dismissed from the school. The main reason to that is considered is his liberal mentality to teach men and women on similar basis. The learning artists of the academy had the privileges to get nude women to understand the human anatomy. But the women weren’t allows due to the social restrictions. Eakins broke those restrictions and allowed nude male models in the class of women students. Though, a loincloth was always there on the model.

But the authorities got offended when Eakins started to remove even that then cloth and taught women. This action took a heat in the society and academy. As if it wasn’t enough, there happened few more anecdotes to corner Eakins as a victim.

The notable incident is with Miss Amelia Van Buren. When she asked him about the movements of pelvis, Eakins asked her to come to the studio and then he got undressed.  In defense he said he ‘gave her the explanation as I could not have done by words only.’ Such incidents brought him suspicions. Ultimately, he was removed from the academy in 1886 accused for removing loincloth of a male model in front of female students.

And that wasn’t it. Another dispute over his works happened when he produced two large paintings, which he considered as the most important works of him, The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic. Both paintings depicted a severe portrayal of a clinic full of doctors, in which a team of doctors were examining or dissecting a human body. The portrayal was realistic as it was the style of the artist. But the unpleasant thing was that the human body in the paintings had dissecting wounds very natural and real. It made the viewer very creepy sensations and were dislike by both the public and the critics.

The Gross Clinic and Agnew Clinic by Thomas Eakins

As you can see both paintings are able to make anyone creep.  These bold depictions were not celebrated as many exhibitions rejected to exhibit them and wherever they got in, got severely criticized. Eakins had to sell them for $200 and $ 750 respectively. Much lower than what he thought.

Well, today the scenario for his paintings is sitting on the opposite direction. The Gross Clinic got sold for $ 68 million dollars in November 2006. No one knows why, but most artists get rewarded for his great works years after their deaths. That’s a big discouragement for any aspiring artist.

History is a proof that controversies make anything more grand or popular. Maybe Thomas Eakins couldn’t have gotten as much notoriety in general public without his controversies. But, only controversies don’t last for centuries. After 1990s, Eakins has been emerged as an inspiration in the Sexuality studies in art history and is revered for his observations of human anatomy. Thus, his art contributes the major part in his posthumous popularity in modern world than the controversies.

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