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Thomas Eakins

(1844—1916) American painter and photographer


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(b Philadelphia, 25 July 1844; d Philadelphia, 25 June 1916).

American painter, primarily of portraits, regarded by most critics as the outstanding American painter of the 19th century and by many as the greatest his country has yet produced. He spent almost all his career in Philadelphia, where he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1862–6. This was followed by his only substantial period away from his native city, when he spent four years in Europe, 1886–70. In Paris he continued his training under Gérôme, 1886–9, but he learned more from a six-month visit to Spain at the end of his stay in Europe, the unaffected naturalism and sombre dignity of Velázquez's work making a particularly strong impact on him. In 1870 he returned to Philadelphia and in 1876 he began teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy. He caused controversy with his radical ideas, particularly his insistence on basing study on nude models rather than plaster casts, and in 1886 he was forced to resign after allowing a mixed-sex class to draw from a completely nude male model. Such desire for realism also led Eakins to study anatomy and to make use of photographs, but the scientific bent in his work is of less importance than his honesty and depth of characterization: his portraits are often compared with Rembrandt's because of their dramatic play of sombre lighting and sense of inner truth.

Eakins's most famous work is The Gross Clinic (1875, Thomas Jefferson Univ., Philadelphia), which has been described as ‘very possibly the greatest picture ever painted by an American artist’ (John Wilmerding, American Art, 1976). It depicts a famous Philadelphia surgeon, Dr Samuel Gross, presiding over an operation watched by a class of students. Eakins painted it for a major exhibition in Philadelphia celebrating the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, but it was rejected by the art jury because of its gory realism and instead displayed in the medical section of the exhibition. He later suffered a similar rejection with another picture of surgery, The Agnew Clinic (1889, Univ. of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia). Because Eakins had a small private income and modest needs, he could continue on his chosen course despite public condemnation, but much of his later career was spent working in bitter isolation. It was only near the end of his life that he achieved recognition as a great master, and in the first two decades of the 20th century his desire to ‘peer deeper into the heart of American life’ was reflected in the work of the Ashcan School and other realist painters; Robert Henri was one of his greatest admirers. In addition to portraits, Eakins painted genre scenes of Philadelphia life: boating and bathing were favourite themes, reflecting his love of outdoor exercise (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, 1871, Met. Mus., New York). He also took photographs and made a few sculptures. His wife, Susan Hannah Macdowell Eakins (1851–1938), whom he married in 1884, was likewise a painter and photographer, as well as an accomplished pianist.

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Subjects: Art.


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