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Eakins In Light And Shadow

June 2024
17min read

The man who may be America’s greatest artist liked to fend off the curious with the statement “My life is all in my works. ” He was right, but the works and the life take on new poignance with the release and exhibition of a once-private collection of his letters, photographs, and sketchbooks.

Thomas Eakins is now recognized as one of the greatest American painters, but in his own era his reputation was uncertain. He had only a single one-man show during his lifetime, and despite memorial exhibitions in New York and Philadelphia after his death in 1916 and his widow’s substantial gift of paintings to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1929, Eakins remained relatively obscure until Lloyd Goodrich published a ground-breaking monograph on him in 1933. Only in recent years have critics and scholars begun fully to appreciate the depth and complexity of his art and to probe the contradictory impulses that seem to have motivated his life and his work.


Much of Eakins’s professional life was centered on the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied and taught—and from which, in a celebrated incident, he was dismissed as director. It is therefore both fitting and ironic that a major Eakins exhibition has just been mounted by the Pennsylvania Academy, where it will be on view until April 5, 1992. “Thomas Eakins Rediscovered: At Home, at School, at Work” reexamines the artist’s career largely through the important collection of letters, sketchbooks, photographs, manuscripts, and works of art that were assembled after his death by a former student named Charles Bregler. The exhibition includes many previously unexhibited works and documents and casts fresh light on his career. It also provides new evidence about a series of scandals that dogged him for years. Throughout his later life Eakins was accused of sexual improprieties by former students and models. And although it is difficult to ascertain whether any of these accusations were based on fact, it does become clear that Eakins projected a dangerous aura of sexuality both in his daily life and in his art. This made him a natural target for those who resented the way he stood apart from other men—in his high-minded teaching methods, in his exceptional artistic ability, and in the unconventional way he chose to live his life.


“Eakins is not a painter, he is a force,” Walt Whitman said after the two men met in 1887, when Eakins went to Camden to ask the poet to sit for a portrait. For Whitman, Eakins’s strong character and unbending ethical commitment to his art clearly were more important than his technical skills. The poet must also have been impressed by the way Eakins was willing to confront a certain antiartistic bias in American culture and even to incorporate that bias into his art, somewhat the way Whitman himself did.

As an artist and as a man, Eakins was a complex mixture of conservatism and daring, of loyalty and rebellion. He not only spent most of his life in Philadelphia, the city of his birth, but lived the greater part of it in his parental home at 1729 Mount Vernon Street. And yet, although he was so firmly rooted, his fierce independence of mind set him against the world of which he was such an integral part, and his life was a series of struggles with the society around him.

Parochial as he was in many ways, he was highly cultivated. He was well read not only in American and English literature but also in several other languages. Although he went to Europe only once, he stayed there four years, and he knew French and Italian well enough to carry on lively correspondences in those languages. Provincial and cosmopolitan, ingenuous and sophisticated, pragmatic and imaginative, Thomas Eakins seems in many ways to embody late-nineteenth-century America itself.

He was born on July 25, 1844, the first child of Benjamin Eakins, a writing master and teacher, and Caroline Cowperthwait Eakins. The next two decades brought him three sisters, with whom he had complicated relationships. Frances (known as Fanny), born in 1848, eventually broke off with him because she held him responsible for the suicide of one of her daughters; Margaret (called Maggie), born in 1853, was his favorite (and a frequent model), and her death in 1882 shook him to the core; Caroline (known as Caddy), born in 1865, married one of Eakins’s pupils, George Frank Stephens, who later became a bitter enemy.

His was a prosperous and cultivated middle-class family. Benjamin Eakins invested wisely in real estate and other property, from which he derived the comfortable income that allowed him to encourage his son’s artistic ambitions. The Eakinses were very musical, and although Tom never learned to play an instrument, the subjects of his paintings reflect the many house concerts that were given at Mount Vernon Street.

The family moved there in 1857, the year Eakins was admitted to the Central High School of Philadelphia, the first public high school in Pennsylvania. Modeled on Boston’s Latin School, Central High granted admission solely on the basis of merit, and the course of study mixed the traditional classical curriculum with training in the modern sciences. Throughout his life Eakins retained a lively interest in science and was particularly interested in anatomy, optics, and various kinds of locomotion. (In 1894 the Proceedings of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences published his paper on “The Differential Action of Certain Muscles Passing More Than One Joint.”)

Eakins received excellent grades in drawing, and the year after graduating he competed unsuccessfully for the position of professor of drawing, writing, and bookkeeping. That same year, 1862, he registered at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he drew from casts of antique sculpture and attended lectures on anatomy. A few months later he was permitted to draw from the live model but, following common academic practice, he still did no painting. At the same time, he attended anatomy courses at Jefferson Medical College, and he appears to have considered making a career in medicine.

In 1866 Eakins decided to study art in Paris. His father fully backed him in this decision, assuring him that he would provide support not only for schooling but, if need be, for the rest of his life. In Paris Eakins worked in the studio of Jean-Léon Gér’ôme at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he drew extensively from the nude model. One of the most successful academic painters of the day, Gér’ôme was known for his meticulously detailed rendering of historical and exotic subjects and his incisively dramatic compositions. He was also a sworn enemy of realist and modernist painting, so much so that in 1893 he fought against the French government’s accepting the gift of impressionist paintings from the bequest of Gustave Caillebotte.


Possibly because of his teacher’s bias, Eakins appears to have had no interest in the French realists or impressionists, even though they were his contemporaries. And although in just a few years Eakins’s paintings would have more in common with realists such as Courbet than with Gér’ôme he stayed loyal to the memory of his academic master for the rest of his life. Eakins’s notion of realism was tied to an almost photographic mode of visual perception that was very like Gérôme’s. The blatantly subjective technique of the impressionists remained forever outside his purview.

Yet within the somewhat narrow limits he set for himself, he sought to be independent, socially as well as artistically. Even though he knew that he could depend upon an income, he was anxious to support himself. After he felt comfortable with his progress, he wrote his father from Paris: “I will never have to give up painting, for even now I could paint heads good enough to make a living anywhere in America. I hope not to be a drag upon you a great while longer.”

In addition to his studies with Gér’ôme, Eakins sometimes worked in the studio of the portrait sculptor Augustin Dumont and the painter Léon Bonnat. He also greatly admired the work of Thomas Couture, who had been Manet’s teacher (although Eakins seems not to have noticed Manet’s work at the time). In particular he was intrigued by Couture’s freely brushed technique, which was quite the opposite of the tight, almost invisible brushwork favored by Gér’ôme. Eakins felt that the evidence of painterly process in Couture’s pictures seemed true to the essential nature of the medium, and Couture’s influence is evident in some of his earliest independent paintings.

This interest in a more painterly technique deepened when Eakins went to Spain toward the end of his European sojourn. There he saw the works of Velázquez and Ribera, which he said embodied what he “always thought ought to have been done” in painting—“so strong so reasonable so free from every affectation.” Velázquez in particular seemed to have achieved a unity of subject and technique that would become one of Eakins’s own main goals.

He returned to Philadelphia in the early summer of 1870 and only a few months later painted his first masterpiece, The Champion Single Sculls , better known as Max Schmitt in a Single Scull . Schmitt was a friend who had won the first Schuylkill Navy Single Scull Championship, and Eakins had followed his amateur racing career all the time he was in Paris. In October 1870 he was able to witness at first hand Schmitt’s finest triumph, when he recaptured the championship in an unprecedented four-boat race. Eakins commemorated the victory with a portrait of Schmitt seated in his winning scull, Josie .

Eakins is not a painter, he is a force,” Walt Whitman said.

In the background of the painting there are other rowers, and among them Eakins looks out toward the viewer. Single scull racing was highly esteemed at the time for combining physical strength with mental discipline and for cultivating a highly refined technique—attributes similar to those necessary for artistic success. The single scull racer was, after all, completely on his own: He provided both his own power and his own steering, and like an artist, he was entirely responsible for the success or failure of his undertaking.


In 1875, when Eakins had been working on his own for only five years, he received the commission for his largest and most ambitious painting to date, a portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross, one of America’s leading surgeons and a teacher at the Jefferson Medical College, where Eakins was again studying anatomy.

The portrait of Professor Gross, now known as The Gross Clinic , is one of the most extraordinary and powerful pictures in the whole of American art—at once the portrait of an individual man and of the highly charged work in which he is engaged. The notion of painting a portrait of someone in his professional surroundings—defining a man by what he did—had become fairly common in the latter part of the nineteenth century. But the unflinching realism, emotional intensity, and underlying sense of mystery of this picture raise Dr. Gross’s activity to a kind of metaphor. It seems to be a visualization of Gross’s own statement that “surgery is not a sinecure, but a most corroding, soul-disturbing profession.”

Again, the painting seems to reflect not only Eakins’s admiration for Dr. Gross but his own professional concerns. A surgeon, like an artist, has to combine both intellectual and manual skills, and an artist, like a surgeon—according to Eakins’s severe ethical code—ought to be able to confront the rawest and most demanding situations life can offer. Indeed, Dr. Gross, with his blood-soaked hand holding the stylus-like scalpel, very much resembles an artist at work on a picture. Even the bright red of the blood, contrasted as it is with the dark tones of the rest of the painting, seems to suggest the creative potential of crimson paint straight from the tube as well as the vital fluid of life.

Eakins had planned for the painting to be shown at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, which was to open at Fairmount Park on May 10. But to his chagrin, the fair’s fine arts selection committee considered the subject and rendering of The Gross Clinic too raw and refused to show it. The blood on Dr. Gross’s hand was considered especially provocative. Instead, Eakins exhibited the painting at the Haseltine Galleries toward the end of April, just before the Centennial Exhibition opened. It was praised by the critic William Clark, who called it “a great work” and even went so far as to say, “We know of nothing greater that has ever been executed in America.” Eventually the painting managed to get itself shown at the exhibition, but not in the fine arts section. Instead, it was included among the medical exhibits in the U.S. Army Post Hospital—as the portrait of a physician who had written a manual about military surgery.

In a sense the reception of The Gross Clinic was prophetic of the relationship between Eakins and his public in the years to come. Although the painting had been done in part to affirm Philadelphia’s reputation as a major medical center, Eakins’s uncompromising realism was stronger medicine than Philadelphians were willing to accept.

Clark’s assertion that the painting showed Eakins to be “very far in advance of any of his American rivals” turned out to be all too true. The painting fared no better when it was exhibited in New York City a couple of years later. The critic for the Tribune , while acknowledging the skill of the drawing, criticized the picture for having no composition, no color, and “wholly mistaken” aerial perspective. He went on to say that “it is impossible to conceive … what good can be accomplished for art or for anything else by painting or exhibiting such a picture as this.” The Times critic was even more aggressive: “This violent and bloody scene shows that … the artist had no conception of where to stop, or how to hint a horrible thing if it must be said, or what the limits are between the beauty of the nude and indecency of the naked. Power it has, but very little art.”

Eakins’s teaching methods also polarized opinion. By this time he was giving classes at the Sketch Club and at the Pennsylvania Academy School, and he seems to have been a rigorous and demanding teacher, hated by some of his students and adored by others. These early teaching positions were without pay, so in 1879 Eakins was especially pleased to be appointed professor of drawing and painting at the academy, at a salary of six hundred dollars a year. During this time he continued work on his paintings and on his scientific experiments, especially his anatomical explorations and his photography. He corresponded with Eadweard Muybridge, who was taking serial photographs of people and animals in motion, and he painted A May Morning in the Park , one of the first paintings to accurately depict horses in motion.

One picture helps us understand a good deal about Eakins’s early career as a teacher. William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River of 1876-77 can be read as an allegory not only about art but also about the proper way for Philadelphians to respond to it. Rush had been a popular sculptor earlier in the century, and in 1809 he had carved an allegorical figure of the Schuylkill River for the city’s first public fountain, in Centre Square. As was well known, Rush’s model had been Louisa Vanuxem, a young belle from a good Philadelphia family.

Eakins was committed to working from the live nude model—a practice that formed the basis of his teaching at the academy. But this painting goes even further, suggesting that ideally the artist should work not from professional models but from people he knows. One of the picture’s implications—clearly affirmed by the knitting woman who serves as chaperone—is that Vanuxem’s enlightened family has given its approval for her to pose for Rush. In fact, the composition and lighting suggest that the painting’s main subject is neither Rush nor his sculpture but the model.

Significantly the sculpture Rush is carving is not of a nude (nor did Louisa Vanuxem really pose nude), a discrepancy that heightens the allegorical quality of the painting. As he is depicted in this picture—well dressed rather than clothed in craftsman’s garb—Rush seems to serve as alter ego for Eakins himself, a kind of fictional counterpart through which the painter can state his ideas about nature and art, nakedness and truth, and the artist’s place within proper, respectable society.

He felt the artist must work not from models but from people he knows .

Some thirty years later, in 1908, Eakins returned to the Rush theme again. In the striking and mysterious painting called William Rush and His Model , the artist, mallet in hand, escorts the nude model from the modeling stand with a great show of courtesy, as if he were helping her down from a coach, and he looks nothing like Eakins’s other representations of William Rush. Indeed, the girth and bearing of the carver, whose head is turned discreetly away from us so that we cannot identify him exactly, bear a striking resemblance to Eakins himself.

Like The Gross Clinic, William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River was seen by the public as a violation of artistic decorum. The New York Times was particularly critical of the woman’s clothing on the chair in the foreground; it gave a “shock which makes one think about the nudity—and at once the picture becomes improper!”

During the early 1880s a number of drastic changes overtook Eakins. In 1879 his fiancée died, and three years later his beloved sister Maggie followed her to the grave. Eakins threw a great deal of energy into a plan for reorganizing the Pennsylvania Academy School (and was promised that his salary would be doubled). In 1884 he married one of his former students, Susan Hannah Macdowell, and moved from the Mount Vernon Street house to a studio at 1330 Chestnut Street. The next year he began to lecture on anatomy at the Art Students League of New York. All these activities took time away from his painting, but he nonetheless managed to create one of his most elaborate figure compositions, The Swimming Hole .

And then, at the beginning of February 1886, a thunderbolt struck when Eakins removed the loincloth from a male model in a women’s life class. On February 8 the directors of the academy asked him to resign, and on the next day he did so. The dismissal was precipitated by the nudity of the model, but other factors were involved. The academy’s directors, mostly businessmen also closely watched the bottom line, were troubled because the school was running in the red, and they were reluctant to make good on their promise of doubling Eakins’s salary.

Moreover, for some years there had been considerable resistance to Eakins’s teaching methods. A number of the less dedicated students were appalled by the rigorous study of anatomy that he required, including the dissection of cadavers, and by the exacting exercises in perspective he imposed upon them. Other students complained that the course of study was too narrow and restricted. Indeed, Eakins, who had almost no interest in aesthetic theory, showed little enthusiasm for courses in art history, aesthetics, or composition. Nor were there classes in such highly popular subjects as outdoor sketching and illustration. In brief, Eakins enforced upon his students his own methods and his own severe code of artistic ethics—and in a rather overbearing way.

Chief among the discontented was Eakins’s former student, and now brother-in-law, George Frank Stephens, who became the leader of the forces against him. In fact, Stephens became somewhat mad on the subject of his former teacher and engaged in shameless backstabbing. Eakins’s lack of “parlor manners” was widely perceived as rudeness and led to rumors. At least one woman who had posed nude for him accused him, retrospectively, of improprieties. Given his forthright advocacy of “amateur” nude models and his practice of having his female students model nude for him and for one another, innuendos about his sexual life abounded.

In a letter to the academy’s chairman of the Committee on Instruction, Eakins defended himself by comparing the artist to a doctor: “A man could easily be accused of lewdness, and his actions be truthfully described in fearful terms; yet if the explanation were once listened to that he was an obstetric physician practicing his calling he might rest blameless. … So the figure painter may be accorded privileges not allowed to the rabble, and must be if his work is to be worthy.” In another letter Eakins wrote: “My figures at least are not a bunch of clothes with a head & hands sticking out but more nearly resemble the strong living body’s. …”

Even more hurtful to him than his dismissal from the Pennsylvania Academy was the effort to drive him from the Philadelphia Sketch Club, of which he was an honorary member. This campaign was undertaken largely at the instigation of Stephens, who, as Eakins wrote at the time, wanted to force him “out of the Academy, the Philadelphia Sketch Club, and the Academy Art Club, and … out of the city.”

The Sketch Club charged Eakins with “conduct unworthy of a gentleman and discreditable to this organization,” and the membership voted to expel him and have “his name erased from the Club roll,” even though no specific accusations were ever made public, or any evidence given. At the time that Stephens was leading the attacks against Eakins, he and his pregnant wife were living with Eakins’s father in the Mount Vernon Street house. Stephens, who had turned the artist’s sister against him, apparently spread rumors that Eakins paraded nude before women, accused him of depravity, and even questioned the legality of his marriage. During this trying period Benjamin Eakins came to his son’s support. He asked his daughter and her husband to leave his home and invited Eakins and his wife to move back to the family hearth. And the artist, for all his strong-willed independence, gladly did so.

Like his work, Eakins remains defined as much by shadow as by light .

It was shortly after these traumatic events that Eakins met Walt Whitman. The two men may well have felt a strong natural sympathy as outcasts condemned for their unconventional social and sexual views; in any case they took an instant liking to each other. Whitman also liked the portrait that Eakins did of him. “I never knew of but one artist,” he said, “and that’s Tom Eakins, who could resist the temptation to see what they think ought to be rather than what is.”

After he left the Pennsylvania Academy, Eakins was asked to teach—without salary—a group of protesting students who organized the Art Students League of Philadelphia. It was there that he met Samuel Murray, who would serve as his assistant and loyal disciple—indeed, as a kind of surrogate son to the childless artist—for the rest of his life. In order to supplement his income, Eakins taught in various places and took on a number of commissioned portraits.

These included the 1889 portrait of Dr. D. Hayes Agnew, known as The Agnew Clinic , for which he was paid $750, raised by subscription among the students at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine. In contrast with the dramatic Gross Clinic , this painting emphasizes the modern, more hygienic setting that had become common for surgery during the preceding decade. The lighting is brighter, the participants are wearing white surgical robes, and there is a nurse present. Although the tone of the painting is calmer than in The Gross Clinic , Eakins was severely criticized for the “scandalous” choice of breast surgery as the subject. “They call me a butcher,” he told a friend with tears in his eyes, “and all I was trying to do was to picture the soul of a great surgeon.”

The exhibition history of The Agnew Clinic resembles that of its predecessor. In 1891 the directors of the Pennsylvania Academy refused to show the painting in its annual exhibition, despite a previous invitation by the artists’ jury. The following year the Society of American Artists in New York also refused to hang it, prompting Eakins’s resignation from that organization.

In 1897 his eldest niece, Ella Crowell, who had studied with him, killed herself. The Crowell family accused Eakins of improprieties with Ella, even suggesting he may have seduced her. Although the record of letters and statements is complex and contradictory, it seems fairly certain that any sexual activity between Ella and her uncle was a product of the poor girl’s disturbed imagination. Her family’s accusations of misconduct were not made until many years later, and Ella herself remained friendly with her uncle until the end of her troubled life.


But this was not an isolated incident; other women who had studied with Eakins had made similar accusations. And although most of these seem to be linked to the image of libertinism that Eakins’s personal life suggested to his contemporaries, and to the undeniable physicality and sensuality of his paintings, it is difficult to determine exactly where fantasy ends and fact begins. Eakins seems to have been a very sensual man, and his paintings exude a powerful feeling of repressed or sublimated sexuality. But whether his pictures were the sole outlet for his strong erotic energy is hard to say. Even his domestic arrangements became surprisingly ambiguous when in 1900 he and his wife invited Eakins’s childhood friend and sometime model Mary Adeline Williams to share their home. Although Eakins left Addie Williams a share in his estate and one of his nephews told a biographer that “of course, Uncle Tom made love to Addie Williams,” the precise nature of their relationship, like so much else in Eakins’s life, remains unknown.

During his last years Eakins was increasingly drawn to portraiture, and here again he brought to his subjects an intense and uncompromising straightforwardness. Few of these paintings are flattering in the usual sense, but many are penetrating studies in character. Especially in his portraits of women, Eakins is able to suggest the vulnerability and transience of the material world that so engaged his attention.

This is movingly apparent in the portraits he did of his wife and of Addie Williams shortly after Addie joined the household. So deep is the tenderness expressed in Addie’s portrait that it has been cited by one of Eakins’s biographers as evidence of “a love that neither of them probably ever doubted, but that must have taken curious turns upon occasion.”

By 1910 Eakins’s poor health and failing eyesight made it increasingly difficult for him to work. And although in 1914 the Philadelphia collector Albert Barnes bought an oil study of Dr. Agnew for five thousand dollars—well over twice the amount paid for any of Eakins’s other paintings in his lifetime—the aging artist was able to sell only three other pictures during the last three years of his life, all for moderate prices. As Fairfield Porter has noted, echoing Whitman, Eakins “was rejected in his life time because society could not forgive him for accepting it as it was, instead of offering it a picture of something better.”

Eakins died on June 25, 1916, exactly one month before his seventy-second birthday. Pragmatic and skeptical to the end, he had requested that he be cremated without any religious service and that no flowers be sent. His ashes were brought back to the house at 1729 Mount Vernon Street, which he was as reluctant to leave after death as he had been during his life.

Now, some seventy-five years after his death, Eakins remains in large measure defined as much by shadows as by light—somewhat like the subject of one of his own portraits. What stays in darkness provides a resonant background to what is knowable, but even what is knowable is fraught with contradictions. Throughout his life Eakins was a curious mixture of earnest innocent and daredevil exhibitionist, selfless seeker after truth and ferocious egotist.

The mysteries that surround his personal life are the sort that no amount of documentation can really explain, but they nonetheless are at the very core of Eakins’s endeavor as an artist. In fact, even his technique begins to seem part of a complex conflict between expression and suppression. The tension between his technical decorum and the underlying emotional intensity that often seems on the verge of erupting through it becomes a telling metaphor for the mysterious, obdurate, and conflicted nature of the man.


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