The final story of Thomas Eakins has not been written. Modernists have celebrated him for his departure from French academic traditions, and his artwork has had considerable influence over succeeding modernist schools of art such as “The Eight.” But it is very much a stretch to see him as a modernist, as everything about his subject and technique cries out traditional, classical, and universal human themes. Thus Eakins also finds an even more avid audience among modern-day classical artists, who greatly admire his knowledge of anatomy and perspective and the power of his compositions and themes.
Thomas Eakins was born in Philadelphia, where he would spend most of his life. From 1866-70, he traveled to Paris to study with French masters. He gained admission to the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts and entered Jean-Léon Gérôme’s atelier
on October 29, 1866. He enjoyed Gérôme’s meticulous drawing and exhaustive research for his oriental and historical paintings. As his training progressed, his letters to his father reveal a growing antagonism with the French academic’s preoccupation with classical subjects. Even though Eakins love for Gérôme never abated, he began to study on his own, and he later entered the atelier of Gérôme’s friend, Léon Bonnat
, in 1869. He preferred the broad tonalities of Bonnat’s paintings to that of his former teacher, but it was in Spain that he would find his true artistic allies. While visiting the Prado in Madrid, he discovered the tonalities and loose brushstrokes of Diego Velázquez
and Jusepe Ribera
, both of whom would deeply affect Eakins’ art throughout his entire career.
Although today, Eakins is often heralded as the greatest American painter of the nineteenth century, his artwork found little success in either American collections or by the critics. Americans at the time preferred the bright colors and classical idealism of artists like William Bouguereau
and Alexander Cabanel
to the muddy tonalities and gritty realism of Eakins, as best exemplified by his 1875 painting The Gross Clinic
. In this painting, a surgical operation comes to life in all its reality: students look on with scientific fascination as bloodstained surgeons operate on a patient. The patient’s wound is displayed in all its graphic detail, and the chief surgeon, Dr. Gross, stands lecturing to the students, as a woman in the lower left covers her face in shock. From our vantage point a hundred years later, the antagonisms between Eakins and other academics of his time seem of minor consequence considering the unquestionable high quality of the best on both sides of those arguments, especially compared to the destruction of standards that was soon to follow. The re-appreciation well underway of all these great 19th century masters is long overdue.
In 1876, he began teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy and focused on the fundamentals of drawing from the nude. He was forced to resign in 1886 because he allowed a class of students of mixed sexes to draw from a nude model.
It was not until the early teens of the twentieth century, fueled by spokesmen such as Robert Henri, that Eakins’ reputation began to grow. By the time of his death on June 25, 1916, his reputation as an artist enjoyed extensive re-evaluation, and he was honored by a memorial show in 1917 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.Acknowledgements:This article was written by Lee Sandstead.