Life and Work of Thomas Eakins
Thomas Eakins was born and raised in Philadelphia. He was the first born child to the couple Caroline and Benjamin Eakins. The father was both a writer and a calligraphy instructor of Scotts-Irish heritage. He learnt his skills from his father and at the age of 12 years, he had honed skills in drawing lines, perspective and making designs out of well-drawn grids. He was athletic as a young boy and later joined Central High School to study mechanical drawing. Thomas attended several learning institutions where he studied varied disciplines. Some of the institutions he attended include Jefferson Medical College, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts among others. However, his love for the figure was notably high1. His love for realism made him learn both French and the Spanish drawing techniques what he could later utilize to begin his painting career.
Thomas got married in 1884 to one of his students at the academy. The wife was Susan Macdowell Eakins. They met at one of the exhibitions when Thomas was showcasing his work, “The Gross Clinic” (1875) when she was only 25 years old2. The wife devoted most of her time supporting him in many endeavors, taking a little time to paint. The couple had different studios at their home. Notably, Macdowell posed for some nude photos due to her love and passion for photography like the husband. Thomas passed away in 1916, leaving the wife to take up full-time painting career. The wife later passed on in 1938.
Early Career
Some of his early artistic pieces after returning from Europe include a group of rowing scenes which incorporated eleven oils and watercolors. Among the works, the most popular piece was referred to as the “Champion Single Sculling” in 1871. The technique chosen by Thomas and the subject matter drew much interest. He went against the artistic conventions of the city during the time by appreciating the contemporary sport. In the painting Thomas placed his figure in a scull with his name extolled on the vessel. The originality of the painting was a clear manifestation of the skills he gained from Paris. Later he could make the first sale of the Watercolor, “The Sculler” in 18743.
Apart from the outdoor theme incorporation into his early works he included indoor themes. The indoor drawings included pictures of him, the father, sisters, and friends as the dominant subjects. Some of these works include “Home Scene” (1871), “The Chess Players” (1876) and “Elizabeth Crowell and Her Dog” (1874) which incorporated the sense of peace and nature based on a dark tonality4. In the same line of interest, he made his first debut into large portrait painting. He made a large portrait of Crowell who he later engaged. Unfortunately, she (Crowell) would later give up the ghost of Meningitis in 1879.
Teaching and Dismissal from Academy
In 1876 he moved back to Pennsylvania to take up a volunteer responsibility. Thomas would later rise to being a salaried professor and subsequently becoming a director in 1882. He grew into a controversial instructor for instance students could not draw from Antique casts. In addition, they received a minimal training on charcoal as well as a quick introduction into painting. In most cases, he encouraged most of the students to utilize photography as aides’ to animal structure and study of movement. He developed enthusiasm in the study of both animal and human anatomy. These aspects of the human figure also included the dissected forms of the human body. Moreover, he directed rigorous training on form and perspectives which also included mathematics. Some of the study aides for anatomy used during the time include plaster casts resulting from the dissections and duplications undertaken by the students.
During the early 1880s, the Academy that was under the leadership of Thomas was the most advanced of its time. This was largely attributed to the life approach emphasized in the works and study by Thomas Eakins5. He preferred to teach by giving examples allowing the students to embrace creativity and find their way out. His philosophy of teaching dictated that as a teacher, one should offer just a little example. This strategy is aimed at giving the learners maximum freedom to express their views and opinions while studying. He gave equal chances to both men and women in professional development. During the life classes and dissection lessons in the institution, both women and men got segregated6. However, women got exposed to the male models who only had loins covered. This tendency led to questions of questionable character and personality.
At one instance, a student confronted him with the question about the movement of the Pelvis. It is recorded that he undressed the female student and illustrated the movement of the pelvis claiming that was the best way he could explain the phenomena. Such actions made him less popular with the younger generation that wanted to take up the school leadership pitching him against the board of directors of the Academy. At the height of the numerous controversies about his teaching approaches and perspectives, he removed the loins of a male model in front of other female students. The pressure made Thomas resign from the post in 1886 ultimately. His public reputation was badly hurt by the allegations, false charges and rumors which he struggled to reconstruct for the rest of his life. Some of his faithful students moved to Philadelphia where he could continue instructing as well as teaching in other art schools.
He got a photography exposure while studying in France, which he later introduced into the American Studio. He got introduced into the study of motion bodies in 1870 and progressed to explore the use of photography to learn about sequential movement7. He later utilized nude bodies in his study to leading to a breakthrough where he could use a single camera to produce a series of images on a negative. Through the creativity, he created the painting, “A May Morning in the Park” as a depiction of horses pulling the coach8.
He acquired a Camera in 1880 which he used to promote the spirit of realism by initiating the “Naked Series.” In these series, Thomas utilized nude photos to manifest the human anatomy from different angles and perspectives. The naked photos got displayed in learning institutions and other places of interest. To reduce the amount of controversy when he changed to use nudes for both females and males, he called witnesses to show the realism to its core. The immense number of nude photos contributed to his problems that led to his resignation from the Academy. During his time, no other artist in America produced a high number of photography products like him.
The love Thomas showed for the portrait was beyond the fashionable sense most artists idealize it to mean. He viewed it as an inner expression of self and other human characters in a modeled form. He produced many portraits all manifesting a high sense of originality and natural instinct. He claimed that for identification of an individual’s personality, they had to be painted from their natural environment9. He created many portraits depicting some of the developments in Philadelphia at the time. Some of the paintings regarded the healthcare interventions like new surgeries done on people at school theaters though they did not gain as much recognition then. However, one if his portraits, “The Chess Players” got its way to the Centennial Exhibition in 1876. One of the paintings of Dr. Gross undertaking a surgical operation spurred a lot of reactions from the public10.
Today, in the history of America, the portrait that sold for only 200 dollars is regarded as one of the greatest portraits of the 19th century. The range of portraits by Thomas includes friends, fellow students, and the officials of the Catholic Church, like the Bishops, Archbishops, and the priests. After the dismissal from the art Academy, he dedicated his efforts to designing portraits. Unfortunately, the negative publicity created by the scandals at school coupled with his emphasis for the realism concepts the market for his products reduced tremendously. Therefore, although the portraits manifested high levels of skills, the psychological framework of the buyers had changed so that they could not appreciate the quality of the products.
Eakins, T. & Homer, W. (2009). The Paris letters of Thomas Eakins (1st ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Goodrich, L. (1930). Thomas Eakins, Realist. Bulletin Of The Pennsylvania Museum, 25(133), 8.
Goodrich, L., Marceau, H., & Eakins, T. (1944). Thomas Eakins Centennial Exhibition. The Philadelphia Museum Bulletin, 39(202), 119.
Sartain, W. (1918). Thomas Eakins. The Art World, 3(4), 291.
Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins Biography. (2016). Retrieved 3 December 2016, from