Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) was at once the most powerful and the most problematic American painter of his generation. In his lifetime he was also one of the most isolated. Outside a small circle of friends, family, students, and acolytes in the Philadelphia of his day, his art seems not to have elicited a very wide response. Historians have tended—a little too eagerly perhaps—to attribute this public resistance to Eakins’s art to the genteel taste of the day, a taste that Eakins famously opposed. Yet I wonder if the spell cast by the genteel tradition entirely accounts for Eakins’s failure to win a public for his art in his lifetime. For even today, when he is everywhere acclaimed as an American classic and generally thought to be the greatest American painter to emerge from the nineteenth century, his art remains curiously isolated.

No American painter in this century has found anything in it to build upon and develop. Realists like Henri and the painters of the Ashcan school paid it reverent lip service, but in practice they much preferred the kind of sparkling painterly virtuosity that Eakins scorned. In our day Eakins’s putative heirs have strayed still further from the master’s course, honoring him with their words but betraying him by their deeds. Andrew Wyeth, for example, has succeeded only in softening and sentimentalizing one aspect of the Eakins inheritance, while Raphael Soyer has reduced another aspect of this tough-minded art to the sheerest schmaltz. Even the revival of Realism in the last decade has not found in Eakins either an inspiration or a model. It has bypassed him altogether. However we may want to account for this phenomenon, it most certainly cannot be ascribed to any lingering attachment to the sentiments of the genteel tradition. We must look to Eakins himself—to his art, and to the special spirit that governed its development—to explain his peculiar isolation.

The Eakins retrospective organized by Darrell Sewell at the Philadelphia Museum of Art has given us a splendid opportunity to see this artist at full strength, and to explore the question of his oddly orphaned status in the presence of his greatest works.[1] It is unlikely that we shall ever again see an Eakins exhibition that improves on this one. More than one hundred and forty items—paintings, sculptures, watercolors, drawings, and photographs—have been assembled for this occasion, and while not every last one of them can be said to be a masterpiece, they all have something to contribute to an understanding of Eakins’s achievement. If certain aspects of that achievement continue to elude us, it is not because anything important has been withheld.

What strikes one straightaway in this exhibition is the almost desperate earnestness that is present in Eakins’s art, from the outset, as a formative impulse. An attitude of extreme moral gravity permeates the artist’s every effort. It is obviously more important to him than anything that might be described as an “aesthetic” consideration. He is intent upon making his art a vehicle of truth, and truth is understood to be something verifiable—something that can be touched, measured, or dissected. For this purpose, science—whether involving the study of anatomy or discoveries in the mechanics of visual perception—is deemed a more reliable guide than anything to be found in art. Eakins was, in fact, deeply suspicious of the power of art to misrepresent life—and, given the inane conventions that governed so much of the official art of his time, who could blame him? But his interest in science was not, all the same, strictly scientific. It was moral. It was a way of keeping his art fixed on a truthful course.

It was inevitable, then, that the touchstone of an art conceived in such terms would come to rest on the question of representational accuracy. Even in an age which placed a high value on fidelity to nature in art, Eakins was something of a fanatic on this score. He carried it well beyond its customary limits, and at times even beyond the point where it yielded him a significant artistic result. In his preparations for painting The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand (1879-80), for example, Eakins not only observed and sketched this highly decorative horse-drawn vehicle in action, both in Philadelphia and in Newport, but also made use of the revelatory Eadweard Muybridge photographs of horses in motion that were first published only a year before work commenced on the picture. Muybridge’s was the latest “scientific” research on this subject, and it was clearly the challenge of accurately representing the action of the four horses in the picture that captured Eakins’s interest. With his usual zeal to be truthful in his depictions, he also made wax models directly from the horses. As Mr. Sewell reminds us, however, Eakins “corrected the horses’ legs [in the wax models] to conform to the Muybridge photographs.” Direct observation unaided by “scientific” verification was judged to be insufficient, and not only for the representation of horses. One of Eakins’s students later recalled that the coach in the finished picture was actually painted from a perspective drawing supplied by the manufacturer.

It is not for this reason, however, that The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand is a surpassingly dull painting.[2] Artists less gifted than Eakins have contrived to produce far livelier pictures out of equally disparate materials and similarly contradictory principles. The real reason for the failure of the painting lies elsewhere. It lacks what for Eakins was always the essential element in art: a moral imperative. Representational accuracy, “scientific” or otherwise, was a necessary coefficient of this moral imperative in art, but it was not in itself a sufficient basis for it. That is one reason why much of Eakins’s sculpture is now so boring. Sculpture for Eakins was largely a problem-solving medium. It was not a medium of expression. He used it to provide himself with models that would be anatomically correct and also offer certain clues to form. But it was in the painting, not the sculpture, that his forms were fully realized. Sculpture remained a tool. It was only in painting that Eakins achieved—or indeed attempted—complete mastery.

Where we find that mastery most fully developed is in Eakins’s portraits, and there his scientific interests are clearly subordinated to other, more compelling, concerns. In the portraits he also concentrated on realizing a certain kind of “truth,” to be sure, but it was no longer a truth that could be measured or dissected. Truth in this realm had, perforce, to rely on observation, intuition, and empathy. Which is one reason why the portraits vary so much in their intensity of expression: much depended on the exact degree of Eakins’s sympathetic interest in his subject. There was never any question of flattering the sitter. Nothing further from the suave, glittering embellishments of Sargent or Boldini could be imagined. And nothing is determined, as it so often is in Whistler’s portraits, by considerations of design. In this respect, Eakins’s portraits cannot be said to be in the least “inventive,” and they are never stylish. They aim for a sort of Tolstoyan transparency in their depiction of character, and this can only be achieved when the painter is impelled by some inward identification with his subject to go beyond mere appearance. His strongest portraits, not surprisingly, are therefore usually confined to family and friends—to subjects he knew best—and of these it is usually the women who yield him the most memorable results.

Lloyd Goodrich, who began his studies of the painter more than half a century ago, was able to interview many of the women who sat for Eakins, and it is amusing to learn how persistent Eakins was—and how consistently he failed—in attempting to get them to take off their clothes and pose in the nude for him. (Many of these interviews are summarized in Mr. Goodrich’s new monograph.) Interestingly, several of these women in their old age expressed some disappointment with themselves for not having acceded to Eakins’s wishes. But this is not a disappointment we are likely to share. For neither then nor now could nudity be said to be an inducement to disinterested character study, and it was this, after all, that was Eakins’s forte in portraiture. The few examples of the female nude he left us do not make us pine for any further examples of the genre. Nudity in art was something that Eakins tended to associate with allegory and myth—with some vague notion of the “Greek” past. It thus had the paradoxical effect of removing his subjects from life. It was only when they posed for him in their clothes that they acquired the requisite degree of reality for him.

Throughout the entire history of Realism in the nineteenth century one finds many similar attempts to universalize subjects drawn from contemporary life by attaching them to some mythological theme. It was as if the Realists themselves recognized that something was missing, after all, in the way they conceived of their work—an aspect of the heroic that had been lost to art when painters turned away from literary, mythological, historical, and religious themes in order to concentrate on the observation of life here and now. It is certainly interesting that even as dedicated a Realist as Eakins felt this urge to emulate the past, to attach his art to culture rather than to life. But, fortunately for his art, he did not really have a sensibility for allegorizing or mythologizing his materials.

Eakins was, perhaps, a narrower artist than he is commonly thought to be. In what Mr. Goodrich says about Eakins’s teaching there is a judgment that may also be applied to his art—though this is not, I think, Mr. Goodrich’s view. “The strengths of Eakins’s teaching,” he writes, “were bounded by its limitations. It was deep but not broad. Its concentration on naturalistic truths excluded many other elements of the work of art. There was no attention to the role of form, line, and color in creating design. There was little study of great art, past or present. The artists of the past whom he held up as examples (aside from the Greeks) were almost exclusively the seventeenth-century naturalists, particularly those of Spain. In nineteenth-century art his commendation, with some exceptions, was for the academics. He showed little awareness of current European trends; in any case, he would probably have opposed them. And his observations on other art were confined mostly to technical matters. His students were given a thoroughgoing naturalistic education; what they made of it was up to them. Most of them, as was inevitable, absorbed the naturalistic truths, but missed the qualities of form and design that made his own art vital, but which he did not formulate—perhaps even to himself.”

The only thing missing from this account is the moral imperative that was so decisive in shaping Eakins’s art, and it is this, I think, that offers us a clue to the isolation that the artist suffered in his lifetime and that continues to haunt his art down to the present day. The truth is, Eakins aspired to an integration of art and life that we no longer find persuasive. We are less suspicious of art than Eakins was, and more skeptical, perhaps, about the kinds of “truth” it may be capable of rendering. Our impulse is to back away from moral imperatives in art, and to take a larger and an easier view of its functions. And it may be that this is the reason why Eakins—at least the Eakins of the great portraits—has had no successors in American art.

  1. “Thomas Eakins: Artist of Philadelphia” was shown at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from May 29 to August 1. A slightly abridged version of the exhibition will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from September 22 to November 28. Go back to the text.
  2. Lloyd Goodrich, in his forthcoming monograph on Eakins, seems to me entirely correct in his judgment of this painting: “A May Morning in the Park [as The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand was originally called] may well be one of the first paintings produced anywhere in which the gaits of trotting horses arc accurately represented. As representation of motion, down to such details as the blurring of the turning wheels, the picture records motion with complete truth. Yet it is arrested motion, naturalistically rendered, not movement in the forms themselves, as created by the masters of plastic movement. Eakins’s own small Newport sketch conveys more sensation of movement, perhaps because it is more freely and broadly handled.” (Thomas Eakins, Volume I, page 265.) Mr. Goodrich’s two-volume study of the artist will be published in November by the Harvard University Press as part of the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Studies in American Art sponsored by the National Gallery of Art ($70 before January 1, 1983, $90 thereafter); it is certain to remain the definitive work on the artist for many years to come. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 Number 1, on page 66
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
https://newcriterion.com/issues/1982/9/the-eakins-retrospective

Popular Right Now