August 2003

Thomas Eakins
Painting Pure Thought

by Louis Torres

"Individualist, nonconformist, truth-teller," and both "hero and outcast" to American art historians--so Kathleen A. Foster characterizes Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) in the catalogue for the retrospective of his work, which closed last September at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.[1] Eakins was all those things, and accounts of his life make for absorbing reading. But it is his paintings, ultimately, that make him the distinctive figure he is, so to Foster's list I would add painter of pure thought.

Eakins is one of my favorite painters, I should say at the outset. I had missed the previous retrospective of his work in 1982, and greatly looked forward to attending this one, as there would be much to enjoy and learn. Even before I set foot in the Metropolitan, however, two nagging issues had lodged in my mind. An article in Lingua Franca (October 2001), had carried the rather ominous title "Doubting Thomas: A Legendary Painter's Methods Are Finally Exposed," along with this teasing sidebar: "Thomas Eakins is suspected of tracing many of his paintings from photographs." Then there was the insistence by some that photographs which Eakins and his students had made of each other posing nude (for teaching purposes)--as well as his painting Swimming, which features nude male figures--were expressive of homoeroticism. I will return to both these issues below, following a brief account of Eakins's early training and a survey of some of the best work from the first decade of his career. Finally, I will conclude with a consideration of what many regard as his greatest works--the late portraits.

At the Academy

In 1862, Eakins, then eighteen, embarked on a course of study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia with the intention of becoming a painter. His training there consisted of learning to draw from antique casts, then of lectures in anatomy and classes in drawing from life. Later he would attend advanced lectures in anatomy at the city's leading medical school, showing such enthusiasm that it was thought he might become a surgeon. As for painting, it was not yet part of the curriculum at the Academy. He would have to wait to paint, and patiently wait he did. Eakins--whose unflinching realism, broad range, and sensitive renderings of the human psyche have justly led many to consider him America's greatest painter[2]--would not touch brush to canvas until five years later, in Paris, and would not begin his first completed painting, A Street Scene in Seville (on which he worked for three months), until he was twenty-six.

How times have changed. Compare Eakins's training to the way most young people prepare for a career in "art" nowadays--as at one university, where students in the art department can "engage in contemporary issues, ideas, and new technologies" and "start out as a painter, later get excited about sculpture, and then, after taking a course in digital multimedia, integrate all three in an interactive video sculpture" in the university's own art museum. No dusty antique casts or tedious life-drawing classes and anatomy lectures at this progressive institution!

The First Decade

Following his years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Eakins attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts, in Paris, where he trained from 1866 to 1870 under the renowned French academic painter Jean-Leon Gérôme [biography] [works: 171 images] [two unusual portraits: Head of a Peasant / Portrait of a Young Boy], who would remain a lifelong influence--as would such old masters as Velázquez, whose paintings Eakins studied during side trips to Spain. After four years abroad, Eakins returned to Philadelphia, never to visit Europe again. Although he had absorbed much there, the young painter would forge a distinctive American identity out of the experience and attain excellence as both a painter and a teacher.

Many of Eakins's paintings from the 1870s reflect his youthful interest in sports and outdoor activities--in particular, scull racing and sailing, as well as boxing and baseball. One of his earliest and best-known works--The Champion Single Sculls (1871), long known as Max Schmitt in a Single Scull--is from this period. In closely observed detail, this expansive painting depicts a bright afternoon on a still river, with a rower (Eakins's friend, as it happens) sitting in a racing shell in the foreground, peering over his shoulder in the general direction of the viewer. In mid-ground, a much smaller figure is pictured rowing away from Schmitt in a shell bearing Eakins's signature and the date on its stern--details easily missed by a casual viewer (Eakins himself is the rower!). Further back, to the right, are two tiny figures in single shells, and to the left, three figures in a red rowboat. Still more distant, two bridges span the middle portion of the painting, across one of which a locomotive is crossing. Beyond is yet another racing shell, and a minuscule steamboat spewing white smoke from its stack. Clumps of trees at left mid-ground are reflected in the water below, while dark shadows cover the landscape and scattered trees at the right.

Stephen May, in a review of the Eakins retrospective, characterizes The Champion Single Sculls as "a scintillating, carefully plotted depiction of the artist's boyhood friend at the site of his rowing victories on the river." It is, he says, "one of the great images in our art history." In an earlier review of Eakins's rowing pictures, he called it "surely one of the finest paintings in American art."

In What Art Is, Michelle Kamhi and I wrote of this painting that "the aura of tranquility is palpable, and one has the sense that Schmitt, though momentarily distracted, will soon be alone with his thoughts." Indeed, a kind of solitude seems to pervade this carefully rendered, richly detailed, and immensely satisfying painting. At least two writers would beg to differ. In 1994, New York Times critic Roberta Smith found the portrayal of Schmitt somewhat "sad" and "stiff," misleadingly describing him as "contemplating his reflection in the glass-smooth water," while suggesting that he is doing so "with an intensity that is just this side of scary." Smith's bizarre interpretation of the painting has no basis in reality, and reveals more about her than I, for one, care to know.

Three years earlier, Henry Adams, curator of American art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, remarked upon The Champion Single Sculls and the event that inspired it. In an article for Smithsonian magazine, he reported that Schmitt had won an important race by a full three lengths, and that Eakins had chosen to depict, not the race itself, but a moment of rest in the training regimen. This, he said, made the painting "a tribute not just to Schmitt's victory but to the discipline that created it." True enough, but Adams's subsequent remark is far off the mark--the painting is "bittersweet," he asserts, since "triumph is brief and fleeting compared with the long hours that precede and follow it." In truth, nothing in the painting itself suggests anything of the sort, and Adams is not justified in projecting his cynical view of life onto it. He is not responding to the painting, but to his own sense of the events that motivated Eakins to paint it in the first place. Moreover, Eakins would hardly have painted a tribute to something "fleeting," as Adams implies.

Other paintings depicting oarsmen--notably The Pair-Oared Shell (1872), The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake-Boat (1873), and John Biglin in a Single Scull (1873-74)--also represent this early period of Eakins's career, reflecting his interest in the psychological dimensions of physical sport. In each of the rowing pictures, especially the one featuring John Biglin, he portrays a distinct individual, conveying qualities of mental concentration and inner fortitude, not to mention sheer physical strength. The scientific-minded Eakins would make perspective drawings in planning these paintings--two such drawings were displayed near them in the exhibition.

Another human activity admired by Eakins was music-making. His interest in the inner life of solitary musicians is evident in an early painting of a young woman, Elizabeth at the Piano (1875). Dark shadow marks the wall behind Elizabeth, who wears a black dress as she sits in profile at the piano. Muted light from behind catches scattered points in this interior setting--most notably, wisps of white at her collar and cuffs, and a lovely small red flower pinned to her hair behind the ear. Eakins gives the greatest luminosity to the musical score propped on the piano's music stand, but draws the viewer's attention to Elizabeth herself--to her face (with the light catching the back of her cheek), eyes cast downward and mouth softly set in concentration (both, intriguingly, in shadow), and to her hands, especially the right (also caught by the gentle light), hovering above a small section of ivory keys at the right, one of which her small finger is about to strike. It is a haunting scene filled with unheard music, the kind of contemplative moment only a painter of Eakins's skill and sensitivity could render. In later years, there would be other paintings depicting musicians--most notably The Cello Player (1896) and The Oboe Player (1903)--but none, to my mind, as emotionally evocative as this one.

Also in 1875, Eakins completed The Gross Clinic [more] [more], a monumental painting depicting the distinguished surgeon Samuel D. Gross pausing in mid-operation (he holds a scalpel with his blood-stained hand, having just made an incision in the patient's thigh), about to address the medical students assembled in the amphitheater around him. According to catalogue essayist Marc Simpson, Eakins's goal was not to paint a traditional portrait, but to depict Gross in the surgical arena, healing and teaching simultaneously, surrounded by his assistants and his students. Like Eakins's paintings of athletes, this was at the time a novel subject, virtually unknown in American art and with few precedents even in the European tradition. Viewers may not linger long on the graphic details of the surgery in this work, but the figure of Gross, who was admired greatly by Eakins for his considerable virtues and numerous achievements, invites contemplation.

In the same decade, Eakins's concern with the life of the mind found a very different expression in the delightful Baby at Play (1876). A toddler (his niece) is shown outdoors on a sunny day, seated amidst scattered blocks on a brick patio, focusing mightily on the task of grasping a single block, perhaps intending to place it with others in the red toy wagon pulled by a prancing horse, which is next to her. An intimate work, never intended for public exhibition, Baby at Play is a singular painting in Eakins's oeuvre--marking the primary business of early childhood, the mental and physical "work" that children do to learn about the world around them and form a sense of self. Only a heart of stone would fail to be captivated by its engaging qualities.

Eakins's father, a calligrapher, is the subject of one of his most compelling portraits, The Writing Master (Portrait of Benjamin Eakins) [more], completed in 1882. Eakins depicts his bespectacled father in three-quarter view seated at a small wooden table nearly covered by the white parchment on which he works, completely absorbed in his task. The father's brightly lit bald head forms the apex of the composition, his gently sloping shoulders nearly obscured, and his arms resting on the table. His right hand clasps a wood pen, whose tip barely touches the paper, while the left, just inches away, holds the parchment in place. Here one one can appreciate the wisdom of Eakins's observation that "a hand takes as long to paint as a head nearly, and a man's hand no more looks like another man's hand than his head like another's." With anatomical precision tempered by artistic sensibility, he ennobles his father in the loving execution of the older man's painstaking craft.

Photography and the Making of Paintings

In 1872, Eakins had begun to utilize photographs among other reference sources for his paintings, which ranged from live models to costumes, props, and occasional bronze sculptures made for the purpose of study. In an essay for the exhibition catalogue, W. Douglass Paschall notes that it was for a painting of a friend's dog, Grouse, that Eakins is first known to have employed a technique known as "squaring." According to Paschall, remnants of a grid incised into the paint indicate that Eakins had exploited the traditional technique of squaring to transfer and enlarge the image of the dog from a photograph. In a later work, The Artist and His Father Hunting Reed Birds (1873-74)--which shows Eakins pushing a long pole downward in the marsh to move their boat forward as his father stands ready to shoot--Eakins utilized the same method of transfer, first posing for a photograph of his head (just 2 x 2") and then squaring it to match the grid he had prepared.

Paschall notes that such photographs enabled Eakins to depict poses which models could not maintain for long. In his view: "They became the equivalent of study drawings, to be replicated and discarded." Such a comparison ignores the nature of both photography and drawing, however. A mechanical means of reproduction that indiscriminately records everything in its field is scarcely the same as a process in which every minute detail is observed, selected, and shaped over time by a conscious human being. The term study--implying both attentiveness and the gradual acquisition of knowledge and understanding--is applicable only to drawings. While it is perfectly legitimate for painters to use photographs to supplement sketches made from life, the photographic image lacks a crucial element peculiar to both drawing and painting studies--details shaped by the hand, and mind, of the painter.

In their catalogue essay "Photography and the Making of Paintings," Marcia Tucker and Nica Gutman note that from its very beginnings, photography influenced both artists and critics, not to mention the general public, regarding "what paintings could and should be"--an odd formulation that inadvertently casts a negative light on the work of painters active before the invention of photography. What attracted Eakins and other painters working in "highly representational academic styles" was "photography's capacity to reconcile immediacy and perfect accuracy, to 'preserve records of transient and beautiful effects, of difficult poses, and of unusual combinations of line' [as one contemporary wrote]." Echoing the point made by Paschall, Tucker and Gutman argue that photography "held the potential to assist with or even substitute for a fundamental practice in academic painting--drawing." This, they add, would have greatly appealed to Eakins, "who seems to have regarded drawing as little more than a functional necessity." Perhaps, but it is clear that he had learned it well, and never gave it up altogether.

"Photography begged its use by artists. Indeed, it had in large part been invented for that purpose," Paschall claims, citing only statements in "prospectuses and announcements" by its two principal inventors, Louis Daguerre and William Henry Talbot. More accurately, photography "begged its use" by applied artists--printmakers, illustrators, diorama painters--"producers, in short, of popular imagery," as Paschall puts it. "Painters aspiring to more rarefied circles in the fine arts," he explains, "were generally more circumspect" about the matter. Paschall also suggests that painters in the late nineteenth century "concentrated more and more on reproducing nature--a task at which photographs inherently were considered to excel." Well, of course. "Reproducing nature" (a mechanical process) is what photographs do in a manner of speaking, but paintings abstract from, and selectively re-create, nature--a subtle but important distinction.

Around 1880, Eakins acquired a camera and began to take his own pictures. As recent studies [3] reveal, he also began the dubious practice of projecting photographic images directly onto his canvases and transferring them by means of tracing, often combining selected details from two or more photographs.

In fascinating pairings, the retrospective displayed photographs by Eakins alongside (or near) paintings he made from them. In one example, details in the photographic images are virtually identical with those in the painting Shad Fishing at Gloucester on the Delaware River (1881)--a scene picturing an open boat and some thirty fishermen, many in yellow slickers and wearing dark hats, some in the boat, others on the shore. Simpson offers this account of the painter's method:

Eakins based his composition on two photographs: one of shad fishermen setting a net at Gloucester, selectively edited of bystanders, established the figural group and near shoreline; another photograph provided the steamboat pier to the right, the horizon, and the foreground. By combining and editing his photographs through traced projections on the canvas, and with continual reference to photographic prints for interior forms, he was able to paint the finished painting back in his Philadelphia studio.

For a related painting, similarly titled--this time of eleven fishermen observed by three stylish ladies, a gentleman, and a dog--Eakins copied from three photographs, including one of the fishermen, and another of three women of the Eakins family and a male friend, all of whom are looking away from the viewer at a field. In this photograph, a dog between two of the women turns its head back to the left. It is noteworthy that Eakins altered the composition in the painting by moving the dog to the right of the foursome, apparently borrowing its image from yet a third photograph--in which the dog, too, was looking at the fishermen.

Mending the Net (1881) constitutes a particularly striking instance of Eakins's practice, for it incorporates images borrowed from no fewer than eight photographs [!]--including one of a fisherman mending a net; another of two fishermen similarly engaged; a pair of snapshots taken on a rooftop (each showing two small children with two women); one of a tree, and another of a gentleman sitting under the tree on a makeshift wooden platform, while holding a newspaper (only slightly visible) and seemingly conversing with a second man (presumably a friend) who stands facing him; and two of white geese feeding on the ground. In the painting, the two children (one from each of the photographs) are pictured next to the two fishermen, watching them at work. The gentleman with the newspaper, now alone (his friend has been edited out) and seemingly absorbed in reading, is set apart from the group of fishermen, which totals six. (Another figure, carrying a basket, enters the scene at the left.)

Regarding the technique of projection used by Eakins, Tucker and Gutman offer this observation: "[It] simplified the process of combining elements from different photographs, an idea of much interest to Eakins." That may have been, but these paintings--as well as others for which Eakins used a "magic lantern" to project photographs onto primed canvas--do not, therefore, qualify as art (even though he noted color and atmosphere in detailed oil studies made on location), although they appear to the eye to be just that. Anyone familiar with the history of painting knows that artists before and after the invention of photography have depicted single or multiple figures in natural settings without recourse to photographs. Such works include Millet's Harvesters Resting (1850-53) and A Rainy Day in Camp (Camp Near Yorktown) (1871), by Eakins's contemporary, Winslow Homer.

In any case, Eakins seems to have limited the practice in question mainly to outdoor paintings of the kind discussed above. It is virtually certain that he never traced from photographs to create the portraits that were his greatest works. According to Tucker and Gutman, moreover, he seems to have abandoned the practice altogether around 1885. As they further explain:

If we consider as a group the paintings that exhibit projection reference marks, a pattern emerges. With a few possible exceptions, the technique has been used only for figures . . . of a small scale, ranging from sixteen inches for the standing figure in Arcadia [1883] to two-and-a-quarter inches for the central pair in Pushing for Rail [1874] [photo]. . . . Where photographs are likely to have been used for larger images, such as Singing a Pathetic Song [1881] [photo--scroll down past image of painting], . . . Eakins seems to have preferred traditional "squaring up" to transfer the image, drawing from correspondingly squared photographs.

The latest painting by Eakins on which Tucker and Gutman observed marks indicating painting from projected photographs is Swimming (1884-85), which I discuss below.

Photography as a Teaching Tool

Eakins began taking pictures of his family and friends in various poses, indoors and out, at play or in repose, around 1879 (though never intended for public display, many of these early photographs were included in the exhibition, in the same galleries as the paintings). Soon after, he began to use photography as a teaching tool to supplement the traditional practice of drawing from life. Numerous examples of photographs taken either by Eakins, or by his students or colleagues (identified as "Circle of Thomas Eakins"), provide a rare window for contemporary viewers into the remote world of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Eakins taught. Because models for life classes were expensive and not readily available, he instituted the use of photography for study purposes, and encouraged his students to pose nude for one another in front of the camera. Eakins himself set the example by photographing them, and even by posing himself, alone and with others. He also took nude photographs of his wife, Susan Macdowell Eakins. In one striking example, Thomas Eakins and John Laurie Wallace, Nude (c.1883) [more], the two figures stand on a pebbly shore, gazing downward, their backs to the viewer. Each is silhouetted against a lake and sky shrouded in mist, and seems lost in thought. (Both a student and a favorite model, as well as a friend, Wallace was sensitively rendered by Eakins in his Portrait of J. Laurie Wallace, c. 1883. He went on to become a successful portrait painter in his own right.)

Other photographs intended for teaching [more] are those of both male and female figures, costumed or nude, taken in modeling classes or in Eakins's studio. Most obviously intended for pedagogical purposes are those arranged in what are referred to as a "Naked Series," comprising up to seven side-by-side photographs of a single figure, in profile and from the front and back. Eakins posed for one of these, Wallace for another, and unnamed female models for still others. There are also photographs are of nude children, both girls and boys. A particularly lovely example, presumably taken by one of Eakins's students, is of a young girl standing half in shadow drinking from a large bowl which obscures her face (children were ordinarily photographed in profile, or from the back). In only one other photograph, that of a teen-aged boy seated on the arm of a couch, is the child model facing outward, his genitals discreetly obscured by his folded hands and a deep shadow. In what seems to be an exception among the images of young subjects, he gazes outward (though off to one side). That prurient interests were not the motive for such photographs is suggested by the fact that the children in question were always accompanied by chaperones (as one of the photographs in the exhibition attests).

Intimations of Homoeroticism

An offshoot of the increasing social acceptance of homosexuality in recent years is the tendency of some writers to allege signs of it in the life or work of well-known figures from the past, often on the basis of little or no evidence. Eakins has drawn such attention. In an insightful article for The New Criterion, Michael J. Lewis alludes to the sort of trepidation on this score that I, too, felt prior to attending the Eakins retrospective (he uses the term "dread"). As Lewis observes (alluding to incidents involving Eakins's use of male models in all-female classes, and his treatment of female models as well): "In these revisionist times, the temptation to forage for titillating scandal and disgraceful goings-on (usually of a sexual nature) often proves irresistible." To their credit, none of the various contributors to the catalogue chose to raise this issue. A number of critics have done so, however.

In addition to the photographs cited above, others by Eakins and his circle--of naked men and youths (his students and colleagues all), alone, in pairs, and in groups, occasionally with Eakins present as the sole middle-aged figure--have no doubt inspired the musings of various critics regarding his sexual inclinations. In its review of the retrospective catalogue, Publishers Weekly refers to these photographs as "enigmatic sepia-toned photographic nudes," adding that "the 'homotextuality' of many of them has been the subject of much recent critical inquiry." In one such photograph, Wallace is standing playing a panpipe in a rustic setting--much like the upright nude figure in Arcadia (1883) for which he posed. In another, Susan (then Eakins's fiancée) is seen reclining on the grass in the manner of the nude young woman in the painting. Two other photographs are Male Nudes in a Seated Tug-of-War and Male Nudes Boxing. In the latter, the combatants are circled by four reclining or seated youths, also nude. Eakins's "motion studies" should be noted as well. These include Male Nude Running, History of a Jump, Male Nude Leaping, and George Reynolds, Nude, Pole-Vaulting (1885). Less well known are the serial nude photographs of Wallace (not included in the exhibition), which convey the illusion that the subject is walking away from or toward the viewer. For these, Eakins utilized a device called a zoöpraxiscope, after the example of Eadweard Muybridge, who invented the device. Only one of the motion studies is of a female, also walking.

One commentator who claims to discern a homoerotic underpinning in some of Eakins's painting is New York magazine critic Mark Stevens. In his review of the retrospective, he argues that Eakins "seemed to dramatize nakedness. . . . It may have symbolized for him an Edenic liberation from constraint." According to Stevens:

[Eakins] was attracted to the "idealism" of manly young bodies, not to the "realism" of aging flesh. Yet there was usually something equivocal in his photographs. It was not just a matter of whether they were sensual or homoerotic. More important, the metaphysical space in Eakins's art between longing and detachment, analysis and passion, was shadowy and evocatively ill-defined. His joy in the natural body rarely made its way into his major paintings, perhaps because the subject was so personally complex for him. Only in his great Swimming, which shows naked young men at a swimming hole, did he create an American Arcadia. And even there he depicted an older man (himself) swimming toward paradise from the darker edge.

Stevens is much given to pretentiousness. His esoteric reference to "metaphysical space," for example, may sound important, but what can it possibly mean? In Eakins's paintings there are no "spaces," metaphysical or otherwise.

In Swimming (1884-85), Eakins depicts six male nude figures on and near an outcropping of rock at the edge of a remote lake, four of them on the rocky ledge itself, reminiscent of figures on a Greek pediment. Eakins is indeed shown swimming toward the outcropping to join the others--or, as Stevens's fanciful musing would have it, "swimming toward paradise from the darker edge."

The dramatic impact of the painting stems primarily from the brightly lit forms of the four principal figures, set against a backdrop of lush dark greenery--in particular, from the upright youth at the apex, whose self-assured pose and meticulously rendered form are indeed striking. Seen from the back in three-quarter view, hands on hips, his head obscured in shadow, he stands peering at the water, perhaps awaiting his turn to dive into the lake.

Like Stevens, Sanford Schwartz, a professor of English at Penn State, makes much--too much-- of the naked male bodies in Swimming, calling the painting "a love song to male beauty" in which Eakins conveys "an ardent heroizing desire yet with no trace of lasciviousness." The painting, in his view, "presents a sense of physical adoration" in which "an older man [Eakins] is seen swimming toward the men on or near the rocks," giving it a "sexual and narrative tension." "Being appreciated, at a particular instant, by a singular older man, these beautiful young swimmers become individuals themselves," he asserts. The painting, Schwartz continues, does not "necessarily reveal that Eakins . . . harbored homosexual longings he couldn't otherwise express," and, in any case, "the painter's actual sexual orientation . . . isn't the issue." Of course it is, though Schwartz lacks the courage to say so. What else can one infer after reading that "many contemporary viewers . . . might conclude that the artist was more than passingly attracted to his own sex," that "certainly, the only sexual heat that percolates from [Eakins's] pictures is homoerotic," and that "the sexual excitement, or longing, we sense in Swimming is but part of what makes the painting so central in Eakins's work"? We? Not the royal or editorial "we," to be sure, so Schwartz's pronoun must fall into the category of what might be termed "the pretentious 'we.'" He must know that all his readers do not sense "sexual excitement" or "longing" in the painting, yet he implies they do. I, for one, do not.

As for the genesis of Swimming, no photographs matching the poses and configuration of the figures in the painting have been found, but they must have existed. The retrospective did include two photographs of male nudes at the site depicted in the painting, including one in which Eakins is about to climb out of the water. Both are in the exhibition catalogue. Two others, one on the Princeton University website, the other on that of PBS, may be viewed online.

Tucker and Gutman report that "the figures [in the painting] exhibit incised marks and datums" (not discernible to the unaided eye), indicating the use of projected photographs--the one exception being the diver, who was painted by Eakins "from a small wax model," according to testimony by Susan Eakins. A specially prepared image of the painting made by the exhibition curators indicates the locations of incised and pencil-drawn lines made by Eakins which had not been previously detected. In addition, incised lines in such details as the standing figure's right hand, the reclining figure's head, and Eakins's head, were diagramed by the curators. Also exhibited was a "photomicrograph" of the paint surface of the standing figure's head, showing the intersecting horizontal and vertical incisions. (It is not known if Eakins used only one photograph, selected from among many, or whether he combined images of individual figures from two or more photographs.)

Both Stevens and Schwartz know full well how Swimming was made. And they ought to know that in copying both the composition and the main details of a projected photograph, Eakins employed a mechanical procedure that belies the projection of such deep feelings as "longing," "desire," or "passion" on his part. In depicting himself swimming toward the others, for example, he merely reproduced what he happened to be doing at the moment someone else snapped the picture. Eakins, in effect, copied the figures as captured on film--not in the photorealist manner of pseudo artists such as Richard Estes [more], Chuck Close [more], or Gerhard Richter [more], or of David Hockney (another non-artist who paints from photographs, though not a photorealist), however, but as only a master painter who actually knows how to draw and paint from life can.

The photographs related to Swimming conveyed important information and were fascinating to study, though as I examined them I felt at times like a voyeur. Eakins never imagined that his method would one day be discovered by scholars, much less revealed in so public a manner. Indeed, as Tucker and Gutman point out, his desire to conceal signs of the projection process is apparent in the figure of Eakins himself. In examining the painting, they discovered that "one of the incised marks extending into the water to the left of his eyelashes was carefully touched out at a later stage when Eakins deemed it to be too visible."

What might we have today if Eakins had painted a similar scene primarily from life studies, filtered through the imagination? A true work of art, for one thing--not to mention, a far better painting. Lewis finds this painting "curiously unsatisfying," despite its "bold attempt to arrange and order a composition of heroic male nudes" (contrary to this view, however, there is no evidence that Eakins invented the composition of the painting, as I noted above). Lewis concludes, finally, that it looks like a "painted photograph," mistakenly characterizing the diving figure in Swimming as "an exclusively photographic touch"--apparently unaware of Susan Eakins's report that her husband had painted the figure "from a small wax model" he had made.

The Late Portraits

Like the deeply introspective late quartets of Beethoven, or the late self-portraits [more] of Rembrandt, the portraits Eakins produced late in life are intensely private works, and represent the artist at the peak of his creative powers. In portraying "'mere thinking'" (the writer who thus characterized Eakins's work used "mere" to mean "pure"), Eakins was painting the inner life of people he admired or held in affection--friends or family members, and musicians, scientists, physicians, and artists of his acquaintance, all individuals of high esteem or achievement who were given to reflection. (It is telling that when it came to their portraits, he preferred to work from life. As Tucker and Gutman observe, "with few exceptions he eschewed the aid of camera studies for all but commissions for posthumous likenesses.")

Not all critics would agree with this account. Stevens, for instance, claims that there is a "rich melancholy" to be found in Eakins's work, especially among the late portraits which, in his view, "almost always . . . conveyed a kind of Jamesian regret for the life unlived--a longing for the indefinably more." He treads on dangerous ground here in attempting to ascribe to painted portraits a degree of emotional specificity applicable only to fiction, or drama. He certainly ought not project his own sensibilities onto the paintings as if he were reporting fact. In truth, it is highly unlikely that any of Eakins's sitters would have been dissatisfied with their lives in the manner, or to the degree, Stevens suggests.

In Schwartz's view, Eakins's finest portraits "have an emotional depth that would make them stand out in any pantheon" of similar American works. That is high praise, indeed, but it seems disingenuous, given his further remark that

. . . after you see a few of these sometimes enormous pictures it's hard to keep them in mind as separate experiences. As works of art, they're impersonal, even anonymous. That the many faces we see are serious or reflective, or that there's no attempt at flattery or bravura painting, may be Eakins's trademarks, but they hardly give these works the tension of a particular maker's hand or mind or eye. What we encounter is a generic representation, little different from the approach hammered home in European academies for decades.

So Schwartz does not like Eakins's late portraits. That much is clear, but it hardly excuses his further use of "the pretentious 'we,'" as in "after you see . . . the many faces we see . . . what we encounter." If it is difficult for Schwartz to keep these paintings in mind as unique experiences, if he feels nothing before them, he ought to speak just for himself, or for others of like mind. To do otherwise is irresponsible. These paintings, he claims, have "emotional depth." They depict "serious or reflective" people. Yet he insists virtually in the same breath that the paintings are "impersonal, even anonymous," and "generic." Schwartz should make up his mind before committing his thoughts to paper. (Roberta Smith, too, dislikes Eakins's work. In a review written in 1994, she was more direct (more honest) in her expression than Schwartz: "Even now," she candidly observed, "it can be hard to warm to the exacting, tamped precision of Eakins's realism, especially the muted moods and colors of his portraits. . . ." To Smith's credit, there is the deeply personal implication, here, of for me.)

Early critics knew better. They recognized an elemental truth about Eakins's portraits. As Simpson reports:

The singularity of Eakins's art was often written about: one writer in 1881 noted the "positive individuality this artist has, how strongly marked his own style is, and how peculiarly his own methods of picture-making are"; another coined the term "Eakinsish" to describe an expression in which "mere thinking is portrayed without the aid of gesture or attitude."

Contemporary writers, as well, have commented on the distinctive introspective nature of Eakins's portraiture. Roger Kimball, in a Wall Street Journal review of the Eakins exhibition in London in 1993, characterized the late portraits as "searingly frank yet also gentle, respectful, affirmative." He further observed: "Eakins painted very slowly and tended not to talk much while painting. This often lulled his sitters into a meditative repose, bereft of the rejuvenating sparkle that full attention brings." Lewis similarly notes that Eakins "did not banter charmingly with his sitters in order to coax lively expressions from them, as Sargent did, preferring to work in silence and look for those truths that cannot be pried out by conversation." In his review of the recent Eakins retrospective, Stephen May echoes these estimates:

Although his approach to creating art was intellectual and structured, Eakins's personal feelings and passion come through in his deeply insightful likenesses. Whether depicting himself, his family, or people he hardly knew, he managed to penetrate to the core of the personality. "His gift," scholar James Thomas Flexner wrote, "was to catch people at the moment when they lapsed into themselves."

May notes "the extent to which [Eakins's] personal observations and profound empathy for most sitters infused the final canvas," adding that Eakins "painted not what he saw, but what he knew."

In one of the catalogue essays, Darrel Sewell reports that after Eakins's dismissal from the Pennsylvania Academy in 1886 (he had had the temerity to remove the loin cloth from a male model in a class that included female students) he began to concentrate almost exclusively on the making of portraits. More than ever, he painted "to please himself." In another essay, Foster says that Eakins painted people whom he found "pictorially or intellectually inspiring" (both, I would think) and, not insignificantly, willing and patient enough to "endure" lengthy and frequent sittings.

Simpson quotes the common observation that "'every figure [Eakins] painted was a portrait.'" In those he made in the 1890s, he dispensed with all narrative, historical, and action elements, "leaving the bald act of portrayal as the paintings' principal--often sole--focus." As Simpson further explains,

the simple roster of titles Eakins gave to the five works he showed at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1891 . . . --his first association with that institution since his forced resignation in 1886--underlines the purposeful nature of his decision: Portrait of an Engineer, Portrait of an Artist, Portrait of a Lady, Portrait of a Poet, and Portrait of a Student. The reiteration of the word portrait coupled with a generic role--although the name of the lender most often made the identity of the sitter clear--emphasized the intent.

The known number of Eakins's portraits is 247, including the only one he ever painted of himself, and they vary in scale from intimate to grand, his subjects either sitting or standing. Foster observes that the larger, full-length canvases, mostly of men in professions not open to women at the time, "denote merit or meaning." Though Eakins invested these portraits with his customary attention to the unique qualities of the individual sitter, I found far more appealing those of smaller scale--of family and friends, of people especially dear to him. These intimate works often transcend their subjects, achieving universality in ways and to degrees quite unexpected.

If I Had to Choose . . .

"Of all the works on exhibition," one often asks of a museum companion, "which are your favorites? And if you had to choose just one painting, which would it be?" For myself, the choice was not difficult, even during the first of several visits to the Eakins retrospective. Since I have tipped my hand more than once in this essay, a few of the paintings I am drawn to are already known. Here I will narrow my selection to the three I would name in answer to these questions.

Of all Eakins's paintings of men, Portrait of Henry Ossawa Tanner (1897) strikes the deepest chord. Tanner [more], who had been a student of Eakins's and was himself a gifted painter, is pictured seated, half-length, wearing a rich dark jacket and wire-rimmed glasses. Head held straight, he gazes downward to one side at nothing in particular, which only reinforces the depth of emotionally tinged thought suggested by the cast of his eyes, and especially by the concentrated set of his mouth. Tanner's portrait has a remarkable gravitas about it, and I returned to it often, wanting to spend more time with this contemplative man whom I had truly grown to like. Eakins had portrayed, not a single moment in time, but an unambiguous abstraction of his subject's psyche, distilled over many sittings. When reminded that Tanner had painted The Banjo Lesson, a tender depiction of an old man teaching a young boy that had long appealed to me, I was not surprised. The man in Eakins's portrait would make such a work.

In some portraits, especially as the scale is greater, the individual is pictured with the accouterments of a particular profession, or in a setting reflecting social status, or posing in a manner revealing some personal trait or another. Of Eakins's portraits of women, I am especially touched by two, in particular. One is Portrait of Amelia C. Van Buren (c. 1891). Seated in a grand, ornately carved chair, Van Buren leans to one side, her head resting on her left hand, the arm itself resting on the velvet-cushioned arm of the chair. Like Tanner's, her expression is the unfocused gaze of one who is looking at nothing in particular in the outside world, but instead reflecting inward. "Lost in thought" is how this uniquely human state is often described. Given the complexity of human thought (introspection, in particular), and the subtle capacity of the human countenance to reflect it, depicting the inner life over time is perhaps the most difficult task facing a painter or sculptor. In his handbook for artists, written at the height of the Florentine Renaissance, Leon Battista Alberti observed that a painting "will move the soul of the beholder when each man painted there clearly shows the movements of his own soul." I cannot say with any precision what "movements" were in Van Buren's soul during her many sittings for Eakins, but I do sense some of my own in her.

In just one of Eakins's portraits, that of his wife Susan, he excludes virtually everything extraneous, concentrating on her face alone--head frontward and tilted to one side, partly shrouded in darkness, as if a pin spot had caught her on a darkened stage, her hair and dark jacket and blouse only faintly defined. It is unique among his portraits, as far as I know. (Not surprisingly, at slightly over 20 x 16," it may also be the smallest.) Of all of Eakins's work, Portrait of Susan Macdowell Eakins (Mrs. Thomas Eakins) (c.1899) is, far and away, my favorite--the one that affects me most deeply. During my visits to the retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year, I returned to it often, and at times it took my breath away. Even in reproduction, or in memory, it still does.


In 1912, just two years after the advent of abstract painting, Eakins created his last completed painting--a commissioned portrait of President Rutherford B. Hayes--assisted by Susan Eakins, as his eyesight was failing. A letter* about the painting from Eakins to a collector is of interest.

* Click on image of letter. To change the size of the resulting enlarged letter click on the middle of the vertical bar to its right and slide the button up or down. Note page 2 of the letter at the left sidebar.

List of Eakins Paintings // Further Viewing and Reading // Letter on "Thomas Eakins: Painting Pure Thought"


1. The retrospective, which was entitled Thomas Eakins (some reviews mistakenly append the subtitle American Realist), originated at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (October 4, 2001- January 6, 2002), moved on to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris (February 5 - May 12, 2002), and ended its run at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (June 18 - September 15, 2002).

2. Hilton Kramer [more] would no doubt demur regarding this estimate of Eakins. In his view, Eakins "brought a powerful, if narrow, talent to an oeuvre that is wonderfully accessible to every level of public perception." This is a backhanded compliment, given that the work of the abstract painters Kramer favors (Mark Rothko [more] among them) is decidedly not accessible to most ordinary museum visitors. Moreover, Kramer haughtily dismisses Eakins's mentor, the French academic painter Gérôme (more on him later) as a "retardataire Academician," whose work at one time "commanded nothing but contempt in advanced art circles." It presumably still does in Kramer's view.

3. Tucker and Gutman examined Eakins's paintings using infrared reflectography, a technique often used to capture subsurface features of paintings, such as changes from one paint layer to the next or underdrawings of either the entire composition or individual elements. They also examined the surface of paintings through a microscope, at 15-30x magnification. In their catalogue essay, they explain and illustrate all of this in detail.