“Nudity is the costume of lovers and corpses.” - Mason Cooley
Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins was born on July 25, 1844, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and he was an American painter, fine arts instructor, sculptor, and photographer. Eakins was born to Benjamin Eakins and Caroline Cowperthwait - his father, a second-generation Irish-American, was a calligrapher and writing master who greatly supported Thomas and his passion for art. Thomas attended the Zane Street Grammar School and later went to the prestigious Central High School in Philadelphia. He graduated on July 11, 1861, and attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he studied art, and for a short time, he also studied anatomy at Jefferson Medical College.
He was able to avoid fighting in the Civil War, unlike some of his friends, because of the $25 bounty he paid. From 1866 to 1870, Eakins travelled to Europe where he spent much time studying and apprenticing in France and Spain. He studied with Gérôme, A. A. Dumont, Bonnat, and he admired artists such as Velázquez. Around this time he tried painting his own works such as “A Street Scene in Seville” and “Carmelita Requeña”. In fact, later in life Gérôme was quoted as saying to Eakins “Your watercolour is entirely good and I am very pleased to have in the New World a pupil such as you who does me honour.”
Eakins returned home from Europe in 1870 and moved back to Philadelphia where he took up a teaching job at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1876. He also had some creative high points around this time as he created “Max Schmitt in a Single Scull” in 1871, and “The Gross Clinic” in 1875, which is perhaps his most famous work. It depicts a much-respected surgeon watching over other surgeons operating on a person’s thigh, which caused controversy at the time due to its graphic nature. It was first shown during the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and sold for $250. As Helen C. Cooper, curator of American paintings and sculpture at the Yale University Art Gallery says “This extraordinary work celebrates a different kind of human achievement - that of a great surgeon - but it too combines the best of head and hand. It owes much to the lesson of the rowers [in the painting of Max Schmitt].”
Eakins became director at the academy in 1882, where he was quite popular with the student body. Eakins personal life around this time included change as well. He had been engaged to Kathrin Crowell in 1874, but she died in 1879 at age 30 from meningitis. He later married Susan Macdowell on January 19, 1884 in Philadelphia. It was also in 1887 that Eakins became friends with Walt Whitman until his death in 1892. Thomas Eakins teachings though at the academy became very controversial, especially among the administration as he used nude models in person, used dissection in class to learn about anatomy, watched athletes perform for motion lessons, and used oil paints. Due to these teaching techniques, he was forced under pressure to resign from his post in 1886.
This was a very unhappy time for Eakins and these events caused him severe depression and humiliation, so much so that it caused him to move to North Dakota for two years. However, a few years later Eakins broke through with creativity in his works. Some of his other famous works around this time include “The Swimming Hole” painted from 1884-45 which Eakins scholar Elizabeth Johns labels “…the most intense, the most thought-provoking picture,” “The Agnew Clinic” finished in 1889, “The Concert Singer” from 1890-1892, and “Miss Amelia C. Van Buren” completed in 1890.
It was not until the early 1900s though that Eakins gained public notoriety in his works. He mainly focused on portraits around this time and some of them include Portrait of Maud Cook from 1895, Archbishop William Henry Elder from 1903, and Monsignor James P. Turner completed in 1906. In addition to his paintings, Eakins also used the camera extensively, especially to help with the subjects in his paintings. In 1902, Eakins finally was accepted into the National Academy of Design.
Thomas Eakins has had a huge influence on the arts and humanities since his death. Though often over-looked when he was alive, today he is studied around the world. He is a major study in sexuality studies in art especially. Also, his realism in painting and his focus on portraits has left an impact on future artists such as Thomas Anshutz and Henry Tanner. Some critics though still say he was too traditional and relied too heavily on family and friends for his paintings. Critics and the people in his portraits at the time often were displeased by their melancholy appearance, perhaps influenced by Eakins’ own depression. Overall though, by examining Eakins galleries and paintings in today’s museums, as Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr, the National Gallery’s Curator of American and British Paintings from Yale University notes, it, “…allows you to burrow into the artist’s work … and see Eakins for the first time as a mature artistic personality.”
Thomas Eakins died on June 25, 1916, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He had been in declining health for years and many speculate it was due to lead poisoning because of the type of paints he employed in his work. He died from heart failure around one o’clock on the 25th, surrounded by his wife, friends, and some of his old students. He requested that he be cremated and that no flowers or funeral be given. His ashes now lay in a family plot near the Schuylkill River along with his wife Susan, who passed away in 1938.
“The Agnew Clinic” above, finished in 1889, is a companion work to his earlier “The Gross Clinic” of 1875, and in this later work, Eakins uses dramatic lighting of the foreground to draw attention to the surgery being performed in front of a class of surgery students. As a group portrait, this recalls “The Anatomy Lesson Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” painted in 1632 by Rembrandt. The intensity of the scene, the concentration of the aces and the rapt attention of the students in the dark background make this an arresting work, but still perhaps slightly shocking for the faint-hearted.