For a large part of the American art public, the Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) stands alone and unrivaled as the classic American representative of the
Realist style. With subjects ranging from water sports and baseball to affectionate scenes of domestic life and portraits that are penetrating character studies of his Philadelphia contemporaries, Eakins created a corpus of American types and pastimes that, for sheer quality, gravity and intelligence, no subsequent champion of the Realist style has been able to match.
That his career was also marked by scandal, rejection and outright character assassination only adds to the luster of a fame that has elevated Eakins to the status of a national icon. We like our artist-heroes to be fiercely independent and disruptive, and Eakins leaves little to be desired in this respect, too. He made it a habit to offend established taste, not only in painting but in the realm
of public morals as well, and this has also
endeared him to posterity. Not that offending established taste was a difficult thing to accomplish in the Philadelphia of his day, which was nothing if not staid in its standards of respectability. Eakins even dressed for the role, affecting the kind of shabby attire that polite society looked upon as impermissibly “bohemian,” especially for a teacher at the remorselessly respectable Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Thus, while Winslow Homer was undoubtedly more beloved, and both William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent were far too eager to please to be cast in a heroic role, Eakins remains a singular figure in the American art of his time-and indeed, in ours as well. Which is one reason why the comprehensive retrospective that has now been organized at the Philadelphia Museum of Art- Thomas Eakins: American Realist -is bound to be a huge success. Another reason, of course, is that Eakins brought a powerful, if narrow, talent to an oeuvre that is wonderfully accessible to every level of public perception. This is pictorial Realism unburdened by the modern appetite for ambiguity, irony or obscurity. It is an art in which easily recognized sentiments and actions are clearly expressed in a manly, robust style that commands attention without challenging the boundaries of the mainstream imagination.
That the aesthetic elements in Eakins’ art were deeply conservative, with affinities closer to academic tradition than to avant-garde innovation, has seldom been held against him. In fact, it is seldom even acknowledged. Owing to his reputation as a rebel and martyr at the Pennsylvania Academy, Eakins has been transformed in our literature into a kind of honorary modernist révolté , yet this is a classification that is denied in every square inch of painted canvas Eakins ever put his hand to. In every respect but one-his unremitting and incorruptible candor in registering the impact of his personal response to the American life of his time-Eakins remained a votary of academic tradition.
Yet this radical candor-which was abetted in Eakins’ case by his keen interest in scientific standards of objectivity, and which was itself a spur to clarity of expression-was sufficiently rare and sufficiently affecting to set him apart from his contemporaries. Yet it was a candor expressed in an academic mode. No one understood the academic roots of Eakins’ art better than his widow, Susan Eakins, who was herself a gifted painter, very much influenced by her husband’s pictorial practice. Thus, when Lloyd Goodrich’s pioneering study of the artist, Thomas Eakins, His Life and Work , was published in 1933, she was appalled to find that Goodrich had “disregarded Eakins’ roots in the French academic tradition,” as Carol Troyen writes in the catalog accompanying the current retrospective.
Susan Eakins understood that, far from being a painter “little influenced by others,” as Goodrich had insisted, Eakins had been deeply influenced by his period of study
in Paris under Jean-Léon Gérôme, a retardataire Academician whose work, as Goodrich surely understood, commanded nothing but contempt in advanced art circles in the 1930′s. Susan Eakins thought otherwise, of course, observing that “when a man cannot understand the greatness of Gérome I cannot think he understands Eakins.” To what extent Susan Eakins came to understand that her husband had been a far greater painter than Gérome-and greater by virtue of his radical candor in rendering the look and feel of contemporary life-must remain a matter of speculation.
In the current exhibition, we are given a glimpse of the kind of academic painter Eakins might have remained absent that candor in an ambitious painting of a conventional religious subject, The Crucifixion (1880), which-in my view, anyway-is the least persuasive of all of the artist’s major canvases. Compare it to the intensity of concentrated attention in The Gross Clinic (1875) or the pathos of The Concert Singer (1890-92) or the controlled passion of the rowing pictures, and you see the difference between an artist attempting to conform to convention and an artist inspired by the depth and complexity of his own response to life.
In no other Eakins exhibition that I’ve seen have we been given such a detailed account of the intellectual and aesthetic labor that Eakins invested in perfecting his Realist masterpieces. In addition to the expected drawings and oil sketches in the Philadelphia retrospective, we are also given a plethora of his sculptural studies and the photographs that were used in the preparation of his major paintings. Indeed, there may be a few too many photographs in the current show for most viewers, for they are not all invariably interesting, and the sculpture, too, is mainly of interest as preparatory studies for the paintings. The sculpture, certainly, can leave no one in doubt about Eakins’ academic loyalties.
It is in the paintings-and in the paintings alone-that Eakins’ genius was fully developed. And it is in the paintings, too, that he remains an isolated figure in the history of American art. No painter before Eakins was as audacious as he was in his account of American experience, and none that came after was in a position to resist with impunity the innovations of the modern movement. In his lifetime, Eakins paid a high price for his singularity of purpose-the singularity of a radical conservative-yet it’s hard to believe that he could have achieved what he did without the social resistance he met with at almost every stage of his career. It is in this respect that he can be said to resemble one of his idols, Walt Whitman, who was the subject of one of his finest portraits.
Thomas Eakins: American Realist remains on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Jan. 6, and tickets are required to see it. The show will then travel to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris from Feb. 5 to May 12. It comes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York next summer, from June 18 to Sept. 15.