by Gerald Boerner


JerryPhoto_8x8_P1010031 Our focus photographer for today, Thomas Eakins, was a leading photography and art educator during the latter part of the 19th century. He was a pioneer in the development of formal studio photography during this period; this model enabled many of the emerging photographers to get started on their careers. He was not without controversy, having what today would be termed “sexual harassment.” He also produced a large number of photographic of nudes, often with both men and women, that offended the contemporary sensibilities.

This is the second part of a two-part series.  GLB


“The big artist keeps an eye on nature and steals her tools.”
— Thomas Eakins

“A man’s manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait.”
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth.”
— John Singer Sargent

“Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.”
— Oscar Wilde

“I do not paint a portrait to look like the subject, rather does the person grow to look like his portrait.”
— Salvador Dali

“I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you.”
— Frida Kahlo

“A true portrait should, today and a hundred years from today, the Testimony of how this person looked and what kind of human being he was.”
— Philippe Halsman

“And then I went round the corner and there’s a Van Gogh portrait, and you just think, well, this is another level. A higher level, actually. I love the Sargent, but it’s not the level of Van Gogh.”
— David Hockney


This posting is intended for the educational use of photographers and photography students and complies with the “educational fair use” provisions of copyright law. For readers who might wish to reuse some of these images should check out their compliance with copyright limitations that might apply to that use.



Thomas Eakins: Painter and Photographer

Eakins_selfportrait Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins (1844 – 1916) was an American realist painter, photographer, sculptor, and fine arts educator. He is widely acknowledged to be one of the most important artists in American art history.

For the length of his professional career, from the early 1870s until his health began to fail some forty years later, Eakins worked exactingly from life, choosing as his subject the people of his hometown of Philadelphia. He painted several hundred portraits, usually of friends, family members, or prominent people in the arts, sciences, medicine, and clergy. Taken en masse, the portraits offer an overview of the intellectual life of Philadelphia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; individually, they are incisive depictions of thinking persons. As well, Eakins produced a number of large paintings which brought the portrait out of the drawing room and into the offices, streets, parks, rivers, arenas, and surgical amphitheaters of his city. These active outdoor venues allowed him to paint the subject which most inspired him: the nude or lightly clad figure in motion. In the process he could model the forms of the body in full sunlight, and create images of deep space utilizing his studies in perspective.

No less important in Eakins’ life was his work as a teacher. As an instructor he was a highly influential presence in American art. The difficulties which beset him as an artist seeking to paint the portrait and figure realistically were paralleled and even amplified in his career as an educator, where behavioral and sexual scandals truncated his success and damaged his reputation.

Eakins also took a keen interest in the new technologies of motion photography, a field in which he is now seen as an innovator. Eakins was a controversial figure whose work received little by way of official recognition during his lifetime. Since his death, he has been celebrated by American art historians as "the strongest, most profound realist in nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century American art".

[Continued from Part 1…]


EakinsTheGrossClinic The Gross Clinic, 1875,
Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
According to one prescient reviewer
in 1876: This portrait of Dr. Gross
is a great work–we know of nothing
greater that has ever been executed
in America.

"I will never have to give up painting, for even now I could paint heads good enough to make a living anywhere in America."

For Eakins, portraiture held little interest as a means of fashionable idealization or even simple verisimilitude—it provided the opportunity to reveal the character of an individual through the modeling of solid anatomical form. This meant that, notwithstanding his youthful optimism, he would never be a commercially successful portrait painter. Few commissions came his way. But his total output of some two hundred and fifty portraits is characterized by "an uncompromising search for the unique human being".

Often this search for individuality required that the subject be painted in their working environment. His Portrait of Professor Benjamin H. Rand (1874) was a prelude to what many consider his most important work.

"Stunningly illuminated, Dr. Gross is the embodiment of heroic rationalism, a symbol of American intellectual achievement."

William Innes Homer
Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art

In The Gross Clinic (1875), a renowned Philadelphia surgeon, Dr. Samuel D. Gross, is seen presiding over an operation to remove part of a diseased bone from a patient’s thigh. Gross lectures in an amphitheater crowded with students at Jefferson Medical College. Eakins spent nearly a year on the painting, again choosing a novel subject, the discipline of modern surgery, in which Philadelphia was in the forefront. He initiated the project and may have had the goal of a grand work befitting a showing at the Centennial Exposition of 1876. Though rejected for the Art Gallery, the painting was shown on the centennial grounds at an exhibit of a U.S. Army Post Hospital. In sharp contrast, The Chess Players was accepted by the Committee and was much admired at the Centennial Exhibition, and critically praised.

Eakins,_Ashbury_W_Lee_1905 Portrait of Ashbury W. Lee,
oil on canvas, 1905.
Reynolda House

At 96 by 78 inches, it is one of the artist’s largest works, and considered by some to be his greatest. Eakins was elated by the project and stated that “it is very far better than anything I have ever done”. But if Eakins hoped to impress his home town with the picture, he was to be disappointed; public reaction to the painting of a realistic surgical incision and the resultant blood was ambivalent at best, and it was finally purchased by the college for the unimpressive sum of $200. Eakins borrowed it for subsequent exhibitions, where it drew strong reactions, such as that of the New York Daily Tribune, which both acknowledged and damned its powerful image, “but the more one praises it, the more one must condemn its admission to a gallery where men and women of weak nerves must be compelled to look at it. For not to look it is impossible…No purpose is gained by this morbid exhibition, no lesson taught—the painter shows his skill and the spectators’ gorge rises at it—that is all." The college now describes it thus: "Today the once maligned picture is celebrated as a great nineteenth-century medical history painting, featuring one of the most superb portraits in American art".

In 1876, Eakins completed a portrait of Dr. John Brinton, surgeon of the Philadelphia Hospital, and famed for his Civil War service. Done in a ‘dignified’, more informal setting than the Gross Clinic, it was a personal favorite of Eakins, and The Art Journal proclaimed “it is in every respect a more favorable example of this artist’s abilities than his much-talked-of composition representing a dissecting room.”

Other outstanding examples of his portraits include The Agnew Clinic (1889), Eakins’ most important commission and largest painting, which depicted another eminent American surgeon, Dr. David Hayes Agnew, performing a mastectomy; The Dean’s Roll Call (1899), featuring Dr. James W. Holland, and Professor Leslie W. Miller (1901), portraits of educators standing as if addressing an audience; Frank Hamilton Cushing (ca. 1895), in which the prominent ethnologist is seen performing an incantation in a Zuñi pueblo; Professor Henry A. Rowland (1897), a brilliant scientist whose study of spectroscopy revolutionized his field; Antiquated Music (1900), in which Mrs. William D. Frishmuth is shown seated amidst her collection of musical instruments; and The Concert Singer (1890-92), for which Eakins asked Weda Cook to sing "O rest in the Lord", so that he could study the muscles of her throat and mouth.

In order to replicate the proper deployment of a baton, Eakins enlisted an orchestra conductor to pose for the hand seen in the lower left-hand corner of the painting.

Of Eakins’ later portraits, many took as their subjects women who were friends or students. Unlike most portrayals of women at the time, they are devoid of glamor and idealization. For Portrait of Letitia Wilson Jordan (1888), Eakins painted the sitter wearing the same evening dress in which he had seen her at a party. She is a substantial presence, a vision quite different from the era’s fashionable portraiture. So, too, his portrait of Maud Cook (1895), where the obvious beauty of the subject is noted with "a stark objectivity".

The portrait of Miss Amelia C. Van Buren (ca. 1890), a friend and former pupil, suggests the melancholy of a complex personality, and has been called "the finest of all American portraits". Even Susan Macdowell Eakins, a strong painter and former student who married Eakins in 1884, was not sentimentalized: despite its richness of color, The Artist’s Wife and His Setter Dog (ca. 1884-89) is a penetratingly candid portrait.

Thomas_Eakins_circa_1882_cropped Miss Amelia Van Buren, ca. 1891,
The Phillips Collection
Washington, D.C..

Some of his most vivid portraits resulted from a late series done for the Catholic clergy, which included paintings of a cardinal, archbishops, bishops, and monsignors. As usual, most of the sitters were engaged at Eakins’ request, and were given the portraits when Eakins had completed them. In portraits of His Eminence Sebastiano Cardinal Martinelli (1902), Archbishop William Henry Elder (1903), and Monsignor James P. Turner (ca. 1906), Eakins took advantage of the brilliant vestments of the offices to animate the compositions in a way not possible in his other male portraits.

Deeply affected by his dismissal from the Academy, Eakins’s later career focused on portraiture. His steadfast insistence on his own vision of realism, in addition to his notoriety from his school scandals, combined to hurt his income in later years. Even as he approached these portraits with the skill of a highly trained anatomist, what is most noteworthy is the intense psychological presence of his sitters. However, it was precisely for this reason that his portraits were often rejected by the sitters or their families. As a result, Eakins came to rely on his friends and family members to model for portraits. His portrait of Walt Whitman (1887-1888) was the poet’s favorite.


Late in life Eakins did experience some recognition. In 1902 he was made a National Academician. In 1914 the sale of a portrait study of D. Hayes Agnew for The Agnew Clinic to Dr. Albert C. Barnes precipitated much publicity when rumors circulated that the selling price was fifty thousand dollars. In fact, Barnes bought the painting for four thousand dollars.

In the year after his death Eakins was honored with a memorial retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in 1917-18 the Pennsylvania Academy followed suit. Susan Macdowell Eakins did much to preserve his reputation, including gifting the Philadelphia Museum of Art with more than fifty of her husband’s oil paintings. After her death in 1938, other works were sold off, and eventually another large collection of art and personal material was purchased by Joseph Hirshhorn, and now is part of the Hirshhorn Museum’s collection. Since then, Eakins’ home in North Philadelphia was put on the National Register of Historic Places list in 1966, and Eakins Oval, across from the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, was named for the artist. In 1967 The Biglin Brothers Racing (1872) was reproduced on a United States postage stamp.

Eakins’s attitude toward realism in painting, and his desire to explore the heart of American life proved influential. He taught hundreds of students, among them his future wife Susan Macdowell, African-American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Thomas Anshutz, who taught, in turn, Robert Henri, George Luks, John Sloan, and Everett Shinn, future members of the Ashcan School, and other realists and artistic heirs to Eakins’ philosophy. Though his is not a household name, and though during his lifetime Eakins struggled to make a living from his work, today he is regarded as one of the most important American artists of any period.

Eakins_cook Portrait of Maud Cook (1895),
Yale University Art Gallery.

Since the 1990s, Eakins has emerged as a major figure in sexuality studies in art history, for both the homoeroticism of his male nudes and for the complexity of his attitudes toward women. Controversy shaped much of his career as a teacher and as an artist. He insisted on teaching men and women "the same", used nude male models in female classes and vice versa, and was accused of abusing female students. Recent scholarship suggests that these controversies were grounded in more than the "puritanical prudery" of his colleagues (as had been assumed). All the known evidence in the scandals in his life involved heterosexual behavior, so the thesis that he was a latent homosexual or bisexual remains compelling, but unsupported. Today, scholars see these controversies as caused by a combination of factors such as the bohemianism of Eakins and his circle (in which students, for example, sometimes modeled in the nude for each other), the intensity of his friendships with men, including Samuel Murray, and Eakins’s inclination toward provocative behavior.

Thomas_eakins_carrying_a_woman Thomas Eakins Carrying a Woman,
1885. Photograph, circle of Eakins.
[ Frontal Nudity ]

On November 11, 2006 the Board of Trustees at Thomas Jefferson University agreed to sell The Gross Clinic to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas for a record $68,000,000, the highest price for an Eakins painting as well as a record price for an individual American-made portrait. On December 21, 2006, a group of donors agreed to pay $68,000,000 in order to keep the painting in Philadelphia. It will be displayed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.


On October 29, 1917, Robert Henri wrote an open letter to the Art Students League about Eakins:

"Thomas Eakins was a man of great character. He was a man of iron will and his will to paint and to carry out his life as he thought it should go. This he did. It cost him heavily but in his works we have the precious result of his independence, his generous heart and his big mind. Eakins was a deep student of life, and with a great love he studied humanity frankly. He was not afraid of what his study revealed to him.

In the matter of ways and means of expression, the science of technique, he studied most profoundly, as only a great master would have the will to study. His vision was not touched by fashion. He struggled to apprehend the constructive force in nature and to employ in his works the principles found. His quality was honesty. "Integrity" is the word which seems best to fit him. Personally I consider him the greatest portrait painter America has produced."

In 1982 Lloyd Goodrich completed his comprehensive study of Eakins by writing, in part:

"In spite of limitations–and what artist is free of them?–Eakins’ achievement was monumental. He was our first major painter to accept completely the realities of contemporary urban America, and from them to create powerful, profound art…In portraiture alone Eakins was the strongest American painter since Copley, with equal substance and power, and added penetration, depth, and subtlety."

John Canaday, art critic for The New York Times, in 1964:

"As a supreme realist, Eakins appeared heavy and vulgar to a public that thought of art, and culture in general, largely in terms of a graceful sentimentality. Today he seems to us to have recorded his fellow Americans with a perception that was often as tender as it was vigorous, and to have preserved for us the essence of an American life which, indeed, he did not idealize–because it seemed to him beautiful beyond the necessity of idealization".


Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:

Wikipedia: Thomas Eakins…

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