Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins (July 25, 1844 – June 25, 1916) was an American realist painter, photographer, sculptor, and fine arts educator. He is widely acknowledged to be one of the most important American artists. For the length of his professional career, from the early 1870s until his health began to fail some 40 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 contemporary Philadelphia; individually, they are incisive depictions of thinking persons.
In addition, Eakins produced a number of large paintings that 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 that 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. Thomas Eakins also took a keen interest in the new technologies of motion photography, a field in which he is now seen as an innovator.
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 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 the nineteenth and early-twentieth-century American art"
Eakins has been credited with having "introduced the camera to the American art studio"
. During his study abroad, he was exposed to the use of photography by the French realists, though the use of photography was still frowned upon as a shortcut by traditionalists.
In the late 1870s, Thomas Eakins was introduced to the photographic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge
, particularly the equine studies, and became interested in using the camera to study sequential movement.
In the mid-1880s, Eakins worked briefly alongside Muybridge
in the latter's photographic studio at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Eakins soon performed his own independent motion studies, also usually involving the nude figure, and even developed his own technique for capturing movement on film. Whereas Muybridge
's system relied on a series of cameras triggered to produce a sequence of individual photographs, Eakins preferred to use a single camera to produce a series of exposures superimposed on one negative. Thomas Eakins was more interested in precision measurements on a single image to aid in translating a motion into a painting, while Muybridge
preferred separate images that could also be displayed by his primitive movie projector.
After Eakins obtained a camera in 1880, several paintings, such as Mending the Net
(1881) and Arcadia
(1883), are known to have been derived at least in part from his photographs. Some figures appear to be detailed transcriptions and tracings from the photographs by some device like a magic lantern, which Eakins then took pains to cover up with oil paint. Thomas Eakins' methods appear to be meticulously applied, and rather than shortcuts, were likely used in a quest for accuracy and realism.
An excellent example of Thomas Eakins' use of this new technology is his painting A May Morning in the Park
, which relied heavily on photographic motion studies to depict the true gait of the four horses pulling the coach of patron Fairman Rogers. But in typical fashion, Eakins also employed wax figures and oil sketches to get the final effect he desired.
The so-called Naked Series
, which began in 1883, were nude photos of students and professional models which were taken to show real human anatomy from several specific angles, and were often hung and displayed for study at the school. Later, less regimented poses were taken indoors and out, of men, women, and children, including his wife. The most provocative, and the only ones combining males and females, were nude photos of Eakins and a female model. Although witnesses and chaperones were usually on site, and the poses were mostly traditional in nature, the sheer quantity of the photos and Eakins' overt display of them may have undermined his standing at the Academy. In all, about eight hundred photographs are now attributed to Eakins and his circle, most of which are figure studies, both clothed and nude, and portraits. No other American artist of his time matched Eakins' interest in photography, nor produced a comparable body of photographic works.
Thomas Eakins used photography for his own private ends as well. Aside from nude men, and women, he also photographed nude children. While the photographs of the nude adults are more artistically composed, the younger children and infants are posed less formally. These photographs, that are “charged with sexual overtones,”
as Susan Danly and Cheryl Leibold write, are of unidentified children. In the catalog of Eakins' collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, photograph number 308 is of an African American child reclining on a couch and posed as Venus. Both Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten write, respectively, about the photograph, and the child that it arrests.
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.
Eakins died on June 25, 1916, at the age of 71 and is buried at The Woodlands, which is located near the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia. 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. His work was also part of the painting event in the art competition at the 1932 Summer Olympics.
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 scandals were grounded in more than the "puritanical prudery"
of his contemporaries—as had once been assumed—and that Eakins' progressive academic principles may have protected unconscious and dubious agendas. These controversies may have been 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 and authority of his teaching style, and Eakins' inclination toward unorthodox or provocative behavior.
Eakins was unable to sell many of his works during his lifetime, so when he died in 1916, a large body of artwork passed to his widow, Susan Macdowell Eakins. She carefully preserved it, donating some of the strongest pieces to various museums. When she in turn died in 1938, much of the remaining artistic estate was destroyed or damaged by executors, and the remainders were belatedly salvaged by a former Eakins student.