Great Eakins Exhibit Finally Shows Up-With Nude Swimmers!

The great Thomas Eakins exhibition, which was reviewed here when it opened last fall at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (see The New York Observer for Oct. 15, 2001) has now come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It hardly needs saying that everyone with an interest in the art of painting will want to see it. Even if you’ve already seen the exhibition in Philadelphia-or in Paris, where it has been shown in the interim-it’s worth revisiting the show at the Met. Some paintings that were not available when the show opened in Philadelphia are now included in the Met’s version. One of them is Swimming (1884-85), a painting of nude young men that the literary scholar F.O. Matthiessen once appropriately compared to the frank sexual imagery in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”

Eakins’ fine portrait of Whitman is also in the exhibition, and the parallel interests that united the painter and the much older poet have frequently been noted. Yet I have sometimes wondered if a very different American writer, Henry James, might not provide an ampler perspective on the famous troubles that Eakins faced in the course of his Philadelphia-bound career.

Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and Henry James (1843-1916) belonged, after all, to the same American generation. They were, in fact, the greatest artists of that American generation in their respective fields of endeavor. And while neither appears to have taken even the slightest interest in the other’s work, they had a lot more in common than is usually recognized.

Both were pioneer artists of the Realist school whose work encountered dispiriting opposition from a philistine public. In the pursuit of their artistic vocations, however, both enjoyed the unwavering support of exceptionally liberal fathers. Both devoted some of their finest works to the depiction of women, yet in the lives of both there is a current of homoerotic sentiment that is unmistakable. In the end, both died doubting that their greatest achievements would ever win the recognition they deserved. Fortunately for us, but too late for them, both came to be elevated to a posthumous but enduring renown.

It’s certainly a pity that James, who studied painting with John La Farge in his youth and wrote a great deal about the visual arts throughout his career, never got to see any of Eakins’ pictures. The only time James might have had an opportunity to see an Eakins painting was in 1904-5, when he returned to the United States after a 25-year residence in Europe and paid a visit to Philadelphia. He had been invited to lecture there on Balzac, and he also attended what he called a “soirée” at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

As he later wrote in The American Scene (1907), his masterly account of reacquaintance with his native land, what he saw in the academy’s galleries were not only “Sargents and Whistlers by the dozen,” but what he also described as the work of “native young upstarts.” The latter remained unnamed, however. Eakins had earlier on been the greatest of the “native young upstarts” in Philadelphia, but the painting that won him a gold medal at the academy in 1904-the benign Portrait of Archbishop William Henry Elder (1903)-was anything but the work of a young upstart.

In The American Scene , James gives us a vivid glimpse of the nature of Eakins’ revolt against the smothering respectability that governed the cultural life of his time and place. James described Philadelphia as “settled and confirmed and content.” Philadelphia, he wrote, “then wasn’t a place, but a state of consanguinity, which is an absolute final condition. She had arrived at it, with nothing in the world left to bristle for, or against … she had nothing more to invoke; she had everything; her cadres were full; her imagination was at peace.”

Eakins was famously a disturber of the peace, with his insistence on making use of naked models-male as well as female-for the art classes he taught at the academy. This inevitably got him into big trouble. The Philadelphia patron who had commissioned Swimming refused to accept the painting once he saw it, asking for a more respectable picture instead. This patron was Edward H. Coates, chairman of the committee on instruction at the academy, and in 1886 he asked Eakins to resign his position as director of the schools and professor of painting at the academy. Eakins promptly resigned, and his position was abolished-all because of the naked male models.

Eakins was never a man to forget a grievance, however. When, nearly 20 years later, the same Edward Coates awarded him that gold medal for the portrait of Archbishop Elder, Eakins turned on him and declared: “I think you’ve got a heap of impudence to give me a medal.” Afterward, he cashed in the medal at the United States Mint for $73. The only serious money Eakins made in his old age came from Dr. Albert C. Barnes, who in 1914 purchased The Portrait of Dr. Agnew , a study for The Agnew Clinic , for $4,000.

One is reminded of a certain parallel with James in this matter, too: After publishing two of his most audacious novels- The Princess Casamassima , which dealt with the subject of political terrorism and its support by the radically chic upper classes, and The Bostonians , which dealt with the politics of the feminist movement and, by implication, the lesbianism that was sometimes associated with it-the market for James’ fiction collapsed. When literary friends put James’ name forward for the Nobel Prize, it was rejected. And unknown to James at the time, the great project of the New York Edition of his novels and stories-for which he wrote a celebrated series of prefaces-had to be secretly subsidized by Edith Wharton. It fell on a dead market, however, and when he died in 1916, James had no public following to speak of. Different as they were in so many other respects, Eakins and James were alike in having lived what was in their day the archetypal life of the artist in America.

The Thomas Eakins exhibition remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum through Sept. 15.