Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins (pronounced "A-kins," 1844-1916) was the son of a Philadelphia calligrapher and penmanship instructor. As a boy Eakins learned patient work helping his father, and excelled at drawing, mathematics, science and languages at Philadelphia's prestigious Central High School. After graduation in 1861 he assisted his father with calligraphy commissions, studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1862-1866), and attended anatomy demonstrations at Jefferson Medical College (studies he would resume in 1874). With his father's support, he voyaged to Paris in 1866 to study under the academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) at the École des Beaux-Arts. He apparently was wholly unimpressed by contemporary European art, although at the urging of his painting teacher Léon Bonnat (1833-1922) he did study with enthusiasm the paintings of Velázquez and Ribera at the Prado in Madrid, Spain; these inspired the dark, warm values and quest for realism that run through his work. He returned to Philadelphia in 1870, established a studio in his family home (where he would live for most of his life), and began painting family portraits and rowing studies. (Because of his father's shrewd investments, the family was quite well off and Eakins did not need to work for a living.) He had his first exhibition in 1871, to mixed reviews. In 1874 he gave his first exhibitions, in Paris and at the annual New York show of the American Society of Painters in Water Color, where he made his first sale. He began offering free lessons at the Philadelphia Sketch Club; in 1876 he became the unpaid assistant to Pennsylvania Academy professor Christian Schussele and anatomist Dr. William Keen, and in 1877 became an unpaid instructor at the Art Students' Union. He continued to paint and exhibit ambitiously in this period, including five works shown at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia. His medical portrait The Gross Clinic (1875) was rejected by the Academy as too gruesome to display — it was hung in a U.S. Army clinic instead. He became professor of drawing and painting at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1880 and director of schools in 1882, and revamped the entire course of study to emphasize painting rather than drawing, and championed life figure studies of nude models. Intrigued by the photographic studies of animal motion by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), Eakins helped bring Muybridge to the Pennsylvania Academy in 1884, and in the same year began his own photographic studies of movement. He also married Susan Macdowell, a talented recent graduate of the Academy. In 1886 Eakins was forced to resign his teaching position after exposing a nude male model to an anatomy class containing female students; to protest his dismissal 40 students resigned the Academy and founded the Philadelphia Art Students' League, where Eakins taught without salary until 1893. Accused by his extreme detractors of bestiality and incest, Eakins fought these rumors for years but continued to teach (at the National Academy of Design and the Women's Art School of the Cooper Union, both in New York) and to paint an increasing number of commission portraits. He stopped public teaching in 1897, but continued to exhibit and paint portrait commissions, and began a series of paintings on boxing and wrestling. He was elected academician at the National Academy of Design in 1902, but by 1910 was "dispirited" that he was still not fully recognized for his work. He died in 1916 at his family home, at age 72.

watercolor
artists

 

Eakins produced roughly two dozen surviving watercolors in his life, so he is hardly a watercolor painter through mass of work alone. Yet he brought to watercolors the same high standards of craft that he applied to everything else in his career, making the importance of these works outweigh their number. His watercolors, such as John Biglin in a Single Scull (1873, 43x58cm), are often painted with tiny brushstrokes that resemble a thatch of color, and must have taken many weeks to paint. This painting is twin to a work that Eakins sent to his beloved teacher Gérôme in Paris, as proof of his artistic progress; Gérôme replied with warm approval. Eakins's theme is the quality of light in the sky and across the water, keyed off the contrasts of light and shadow on the figure; the ripples are painstakingly rendered to represent multiple reflections and also to mix visually to produce the correct color effects at viewing distance. As with most of Eakins's works, this painting was very carefully worked out in character and composition sketches, even a perspective plan and an oil study (both twice the size of the finished painting); the perspective plan was used primarily to judge the perspective gradient of the receding ripples and clouds. John Biglin and his brother were famous scullers of the time, and Eakins broke new ground by painting these sportsmen (and the rower Max Schmitt) in their boats. Eakins often worked hard on a single painting innovative in some way for its subject or technique, then moved on to something new. But he painted many boating pictures early in his career, fascinated by the perspective foreshortening of boat hulls, and perhaps in sympathy with these individual athletes as he pursued his solitary artistic course.

In the summer of 1880 Eakins purchased his first camera, and began a long exploration of photography as a technical supplement to painting. This grew in part out of his enthusiasm for the studies of motion innovated by Eadwaerd Muybridge, but was in part consistent with his long practice of laboriously preparing perspective sketches, maquettes and oil studies for each of his paintings: photographs were just more information. One of his most important photographic campaigns documented the activities of fishermen located near Gloucester, New Jersey. The works developed from the more than 70 photographs taken in the spring of 1881 included three watercolors, the last he ever painted, among them Drawing the Seine (1882; 20x28cm). Once again, workmen at their tasks was a relatively new subject in American painting: Eakins took it up just as Winslow Homer was pursuing similar studies in the English fishing village of Cullercoats. But the added novelty in Eakins's painting is its entire dependence on a single photograph, carefully traced in pencil from the projected image, then filled in with painstaking touches of muted paint. Many critics remarked on this "severe, unpoetical, uncompromising style," on the "labored feebleness of execution [and] singularly inartistic conception," without realizing that they were essentially criticizing a tinted photograph. Much as the Impressionists used scientific theories of color to alter the cold and dull conventions of academic paintings, Eakins used perspective, anatomy, photography and dull or dark color to challenge the sentimentality and glossy perfection of contemporary painting with his own illusion of unvarnished reality. But it is still an illusion. Even when a painting was not based on photographs, Eakins introduced photographic artifacts such as the optical blurring found at either side of the image and in the distant shoreline. He limited his esthetic choices to the representations imposed by science.

Despite his tin ear for academic politics, Eakins was not averse to fame, and like most American artists of the time he tried to capitalize on the Colonial Revival, a nostalgia for simpler times that became a fad around the United States Centennial celebration of 1876. Perhaps his most famous work in this vein was William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (1876), which was really a blunt declaration of Eakins's passion for the nude as the touchstone of art. But he also composed several popular genre pictures in watercolors, studies of females or plantation negroes in historical costume. Seventy Years Ago (1877, 40x28cm) is basically a closer look at the chaperone who accompanies the Schuylkill River nude in the artist's studio; it was exhibited to wide acclaim, and was one of only two watercolors that Eakins's sold in his lifetime (when it was exhibited by the American Society of Painters in Water Color in 1878). Like Eakins's other studies of chessplayers, musicians, surgeons or artists at work, this is both a study of an individual character and of the American spirit that combines mental and manual skill in clever work — not unlike his father's calligraphy. Hands are always a detail passage in Eakins's paintings, and the careful study of this woman's face prefigures the many penetrating and dispassionate portrait paintings that Eakins would produce after 1890. There is remarkable accuracy and subtlety in the detailing of the dress, chair, carpet and plaster wall; the overall balance of color and tonal values is handled with assurance. But for me there is in Eakins's work a dour and dry taste, a fear of sentimentality that seems confused with a fear of feeling, of attachment to the subject. Fairfield Porter made the provocative observation that "Eakins was just able to maintain himself against an inner doubt that he should have been a scientist. His career was a long argument to prove that art is not inferior to science." Too often it seems that Eakins wanted an art as impassive and detached as science, and his work makes us ask whether that is a worthy goal for artists to seek.

All but 5 of Eakins' 26 known watercolors are presented with an informative introduction in Eakins Watercolors by Donelson Hoopes (Watson-Guptill, 1985). The best overview of Eakins's career and accomplishments is available in the compendious Thomas Eakins edited by Darrel Sewell (Yale University Press, 2001).