Thomas Eakins

Perhaps the most illustrious, or maybe the most infamous, member of our distinguished Club was Thomas Eakins. He has been acclaimed our Nation’s greatest artist, an arbitrary measure at best. I could not use such meaningless extremes to describe any artist, yet I personally find his work fantastic. And when John Singer Sargent visited Philadelphia, it was for the expressed purpose of meeting Eakins.

Born in Philadelphia, 25th July 1844, Eakins’ life as an artist began with appreciative parents who had many artist friends. His father, from an Irish immigrant family, a writing master and calligrapher, and his Quaker mother were both supportive of his interest in art. A good student, Central High School (1857-1861) served him well in preparing him for his lifelong interest in the sciences and his professional art career. Starting as a self-taught artist, studying from books, with artist friends he ventured off to draw and paint the countryside while the Civil War raged. In 1862 he entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and even at his young age this American realist registered to observe demonstrations in anatomy and surgery at Jefferson Medical College. Most of his life would be in Philadelphia, and in Philadelphia Eakins died the 25th June 1916.

After the war was over, in September of 1866, when he was twenty-two, Eakins sailed for Paris to continue his education in art while leading the life of a Bohemian (who carried a Smith & Wesson pistol in his pocket). He entered into the studio of Jean-Léon Gérôme at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, learning to paint from life and to capture an uncompromising realism of his subjects. He was more concerned with his study than with exhibiting at the Salons as did his Philadelphia contemporaries, Howard Roberts and Mary Cassatt. He also worked with the sculptor Augustin-Alexandre Dumont and the painter Léon Bonnat before leaving in November of 1869 for Spain to study the works of Diego Velazquez and Josepe de Ribera. He was home in Philadelphia by the 4th July 1870.

He spent a brief spell in New York City continuing his Bohemian life on this side of the Atlantic, but soon resorted to the comfortable middle-class life of his family in Philadelphia. It was in 1874 that he began his association with the Philadelphia Sketch Club, which invited him to teach an evening life class. He gained the reputation of being an inspiring teacher and eventually our Club made him an Honorary member.

With Howard Roberts, Eakins was an advisor on the design of the classrooms in the new Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts building. It was 1876 and he joined the faculty, first as an unpaid assistant to Christian Schessele, then, at Schessele’s death in August of 1879, Eakins was named professor of drawing and painting to the Academy.

Prudery in Philadelphia can be traced back to Charles Willson Peale’s (1741-1827) attempt to establish the first art academy, the Columbianum. He was not allowed to show a replica of the Venus de’ Medici publicly. When at a meeting he moved that the academy’s students should be allowed to draw a living figure, his rich patrons marched out in a body. Peale persisted in having a nude model for his students, went so far as to try and employ a baker who was having money problems. The baker was only half undressed, when he found he could not bear the embarrassment and stamped out of the school denouncing it an institution of the devil. It was left to a very old Charles Willson Peale to take it upon himself to become Philadelphia’s first public nude model. In his time, Eakins would fall victim to the same prudery.

Eakins teaching at the Academy was considered radical. He played down the importance of drawing from casts and sculptures to focus on painting from nude models, as was done in Paris, and to study dissection. It wasn’t that the study of the naked body was unusual, but Eakins’ insistence that women follow an identical course of life-study classes was too much for prudish Philadelphia.

In 1882 Eakins was appointed director of the Academy. That same year a certain mother wrote to the Academy’s president James Claghorn, “That daughter at home had been shielded from every thought that might lead her young mind from the most rigid chastity. Her mother had never allowed her to see her young naked brothers, hardly her sisters after their babyhood & yet at the age of eighteen, or nineteen, for the culture of high Art, she had entered a class where both male & female figures stood before her in their horrid nakedness..”

In February of 1886, the Academy could tolerate it no longer. Eakins had removed the loincloth from a male model in a women’s life-class to demonstrate the muscle function of the pelvis. The Academy gave him an ultimatum and forced him to resign, since he could not accept the conditions under which he could remain. His forced resignation received considerable attention from the press of the time, yet he was championed by appreciative students who signed a petition in his behalf. When Eakins left the Academy, thirty-eight students also quit and formed the Art Students’ League in Philadelphia, where Eakins taught without pay. But Eakins was not happy. Depression kept him from painting for more than a year, until a trip to the Dakota Bad Lands in the summer of 1887 restored him.

But by other accounts, there was more to it than Eakins just being ahead of his time. There were other charges about his relations to his female students. In fact, Eakins married in 1884 one of his students, a first-rate artist, Susan Hannah Macdowell. His sister, Frances, had remained loyal until her own daughter committed suicide, for which Frances held her brother responsible. It is said he shocked his wife’s friends by appearing indecently dressed, and that he drove from his studio some of the women who sat for him when he insisted they pose nude.

In any case, our Club was not all too kind and had also tried to dispose of him. But since there was no established procedure to concluding an Honorary membership, it would appear Eakins was never really thrown out of the Club. But it wasn’t from the lack of Thomas Anshutz trying. And the Club has made a special point of confirming and securing his membership posthumously.

Before his death, Eakins went on to lecture and teach at the Brooklyn Art Guild (1881-1885), the Arts Student League (1885-1888), the Cooper Union (1887-1897), the National Academy of Design (1888-1895), and he also gave anatomy lectures at Drexel Institute until he was again dismissed for using a nude model in a mixed class.

Can there be anyone reading this who didn’t already know the legendary Eakins? One of his greatest masterpieces, The Gross Clinic, hangs but two blocks down Locust Street from our Club at Thomas Jefferson University only right now that wall is bare. The large painting has been moved over to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a special exhibition on Eakins, 4th October 2001 – 6th January 2002 (when the show flies off to the Musée d’Orsay, Paris). We must support this show. At this stressful time in our Nation there will be fewer folks travelling from afar to come see it.

(This article appeared in the January 2007 PSC Portfolio. The Gross Clinic was purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art the same year with support from 3,400 donors.)