Sunday, 2 September 2012


“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.” – Robert Henri

We are celebrating Father’s Day here in Australia this Sunday (first Sunday in September), contrary to the date of this celebration in other parts of the world (USA, for example celebrates it on the third Sunday of June). Father’s Day is a celebration honouring fathers and celebrating fatherhood, paternal bonds, and the influence of fathers in society. Father’s Day complements Mother's Day, a celebration that honours mothers and motherhood. In celebration of this day, here is a painting of a father by his artist son, Thomas Eakins.
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 artists in American art history. 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 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 utilising 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 behavioural 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”.

The sitter is the artist’s father, Benjamin Eakins (1818–1899). He was the son of Alexander Eakins, who emigrated from Ireland with his wife Frances and established himself as a weaver. Benjamin was born on a farm in what is now Schuylkill Township, near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. As a young man, he went to Philadelphia and became a writing master, teaching the old copperplate style of calligraphy in the city’s schools and engrossing deeds, diplomas, and other documents. In 1843, he married Caroline Cowperthwait, a daughter of a Quaker cobbler, and in 1857 they moved to 1729 Mount Vernon Street, where he spent the rest of his life. Benjamin Eakins encouraged his son to become an artist and served as his model on several occasions. This picture was first shown at the annual exhibition of the Society of American Artists in New York in 1883, where it was received with mixed reviews.


  1. You noted that this very fine picture was first shown at the annual exhibition of the Society of American Artists in New York in 1883, where it received only mixed reviews. Why, do you know? It is a warm portrait of an older man, full of life experience.

  2. I agree with you, Hels about the warmth of this lovely work. I guess some critics saw this as too "old fashioned"...