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Exhibition Review

Thomas Eakins: An American Realist


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 16 June 2002 - Paris' splendid Musée d'Orsay, which originated as a train station completed for the World's Fair in 1900, has made French nineteenth century painting, architecture, furniture, sculpture, photography and decorative arts its speciality . Moreover, since its inauguration in 1986, it has also followed a policy of introducing nineteenth century artists from elsewhere, people whose work has hitherto been unknown in France, considering it of the greatest importance to know what was happening in other countries. .

One of the most successful recent exhibitions was that of the magnificent Danish artist Hammershoi, but genuine interest was also shown for the work of the Polish painter, Jacek Malczewski, for the paintings of Lithuanian Ciurlionis, and for Whistler, whose work was unfamiliar here before.

Currently, there is an interesting show dedicated to Thomas Eakins, generally considered as one of the most important figures of nineteenth century American art, a man whose achievements paled into obscurity next to the daring brilliance of the French Impressionist movement.

Born in Philadelphia in 1844, Eakins, who studied five years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, set off for Paris at the age of 22 in an attempt to break away from an America dominated by landscape painting. Fascinated by movement he went first to Gérome's studio at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts where he became proficient in life drawing, and then, because portraiture was not taught in the academy, enrolled in a series of classes given by Léon Bonnat in Montmartre. He became obsessed with anatomical accuracy and began using photographs for reference, a feature which was to consistently dominate his future work. His visit to Europe was completed by six months in Spain , the influence of which was to emerge forcefully in his later portraits.

Thomas Eakins: The Champion Single Scull
Thomas Eakins: The Champion Single Scull (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull), 1871
Oil on canvas, 32 1/4 x 46 1/4 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Returning home, he began his career with a series of paintings of regattas beginning with Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, a work which amazes by its accurate perspective drawing which had no equivalent in American painting at the time. Taking his inspiration from everyday life, he painted what he saw, and his themes covered not only rowing , but boxing matches, medical scenes, and cowboys . Convinced that only the camera told the truth, Eakins would take series upon series of photographs, which he then meticulously used as the basis of his painting.

"In his search for realism," a member of the Press service in Paris said, "he would pin his snapshots to the canvas and trace around the figures." The Museum of Philadelphia recently discovered four pin marks in each corner of several of his paintings which he'd carefully masked with paint . Mending the Net was drawn from an 1881 photograph of Two Fishermen Mending Nets at Gloucester, and in Shad Fishing at Gloucester on the River, the people watching the fishermen come straight out of the 1881 photograph, Eakins Family and Harry at Gloucester.

Thomas Eakins: John Biglin in a Single Scull
Thomas Eakins: John Biglin in a Single Scull, 1873-74
Oil on canvas, 24 5/16 x 16 inches, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut
Whitney Collection of Sporting Art

To get closer to the musculature of a horse, he would make a model in clay, and to give greater veracity to his works, he had even attended dissection classes at medical school. The raw realism of such paintings as The Agnew Clinic, and The Gross Clinic, where we see Dr. Gross performing an operation for breast cancer in public, demonstrates Eakins almost obsessive need to portray only the truth, but this morbid interest possibly came from his early years when he'd hesitated between surgery and painting. Objective, direct and detached, he makes no comment, feels no emotion.

Perhaps this was the reason why the exhibition seemed to attract few visitors, for apart from a few Americans, a group of Japanese, and a Dutch family desperately searching for the exit, the gallery was deserted. It was not really tempting to linger in front of the sombre, morose portraits, which, as excellent as they were, were quite heavy going , nor the photographs of the lumpy naked women, when a glorious feast of the French impressionists hung nearby, including masterpieces from the Salon of 1868, which as a student, Eakins had dismissed in correspondence to his sister Fanny as "a mass of trash".

Thomas Eakins: Naked Series: Female model
Thomas Eakins: [Naked Series: Female model], c. 1883
Seven albumen prints. mounted on card
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Yet Manet's Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, resolutely modern, a milestone in 19th century art , sensual, disturbing and unsettling, was completed in 1863, over twenty years before Mr. Eakins was pulling down his pants to crudely demonstrate a detail of male genitalia (to presumably female students).

The study of the nude was at the core of Eakins teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy where the students spent more than sixty hours a week working with naked models, but the crunch came in 1886 when the artist removed a male model's loin-cloth during an anatomy course attended by women. He was dismissed when he refused to put a fig-leaf over his models' private parts. However, accused of "incest", "bestiality", and "bad taste", he sank into depression, finally turning to painting portraits which he reckoned were "good enough to make a living from". After an absence of one hundred and thirty years, Thomas Eakins, one of the key artists of the New World, returns to Paris in this very well chosen selection of his works, including a most remarkable series of portraits of his wife which, one supposes, he did not sell!

Thomas Eakins: American Realist will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York from 18 June 2002 to 15 September 2002.

Catalogue: Thomas Eakins
Edited by Darrel Sewell
488 pages, 325 b/w and 250 colour illustrations
Yale University Press, New Haven 2001

Highly informative essays by scholars provide, not only an overview of Eakins' work and development as an artist, but also offer a fascinating and at times entertaining glimpse of the culture and personalities of nineteenth century Philadelphia and the American art world.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on visual arts and dance in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and is a member of the editorial board of

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