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.
In addition, 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 utilizing his studies in perspective. Eakins also took a keen interest in the new technologies of motion photography, a field in which he is now seen as an innovator.
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 behavioral and sexual scandals truncated his success and damaged his reputation.
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".
Eakins was born and lived most of his life in Philadelphia. He was the first child of Caroline Cowperthwait Eakins, a woman of English and Dutch descent, and Benjamin Eakins, a writing master and calligraphy teacher of Scots-Irish ancestry. Benjamin Eakins grew up on a farm in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, the son of a weaver. He was successful in his chosen profession, and moved to Philadelphia in the early 1840s to raise his family. Thomas Eakins observed his father at work and by twelve demonstrated skill in precise line drawing, perspective, and the use of a grid to lay out a careful design, skills he later applied to his art.
He was an athletic child who enjoyed rowing, ice skating, swimming, wrestling, sailing, and gymnastics—activities he later painted and encouraged in his students. Eakins attended Central High School, the premier public school for applied science and arts in the city, where he excelled in mechanical drawing. He studied drawing and anatomy at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts beginning in 1861, and attended courses in anatomy and dissection at Jefferson Medical College from 1864 to 65. For a while, he followed his father's profession and was listed in city directories as a "writing teacher". His scientific interest in the human body led him to consider becoming a surgeon.
Eakins then studied art in Europe from 1866 to 1870, notably in Paris with Jean-Léon Gérôme, being only the second American pupil of the French realist painter, famous as a master of Orientalism. He also attended the atelier of Léon Bonnat, a realist painter who emphasized anatomical preciseness, a method adapted by Eakins. While studying at the École des Beaux-Arts, he seems to have taken scant interest in the new Impressionist movement, nor was he impressed by what he perceived as the classical pretensions of the French Academy. A letter home to his father in 1868 made his aesthetic clear:
She [the female nude] is the most beautiful thing there is in the world except a naked man, but I never yet saw a study of one exhibited... It would be a godsend to see a fine man model painted in the studio with the bare walls, alongside of the smiling smirking goddesses of waxy complexion amidst the delicious arsenic green trees and gentle wax flowers & purling streams running melodious up & down the hills especially up. I hate affectation.
A trip to Spain for six months confirmed his admiration for the realism of artists such as Diego Velázquez and Jusepe de Ribera. In Seville in 1869 he painted Carmelita Requeña, a portrait of a seven-year-old gypsy dancer more freely and colorfully painted than his Paris studies. That same year he attempted his first large oil painting, A Street Scene in Seville, wherein he first dealt with the complications of a scene observed outside the studio. Although he failed to matriculate in a formal degree program and had showed no works in the European salons, Eakins succeeded in absorbing the techniques and methods of French and Spanish masters, and he began to formulate his artistic vision which he demonstrated in his first major painting upon his return to America. "I shall seek to achieve my broad effect from the very beginning", he declared.
Eakins' first works upon his return from Europe included a large group of rowing scenes, eleven oils and watercolors in all, of which the first and most famous is Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (1871; also known as The Champion Single Sculling). Both his subject and his technique drew attention. His selection of a contemporary sport was "a shock to the artistic conventionalities of the city". Eakins placed himself in the painting, in a scull behind Schmitt, his name inscribed on the boat.
Typically, the work entailed critical observation of the painting's subject, as well as preparatory drawings of the figure and perspective plans of the scull in the water. Its preparation and composition indicates the importance of Eakins' academic training in Paris. It was a completely original conception, true to Eakins' firsthand experience, and an almost startlingly successful image for the artist, who had struggled with his first outdoor composition less than a year before. His first known sale was the watercolor The Sculler (1874). Most critics judged the rowing pictures successful and auspicious, but after the initial flourish, Eakins never revisited the subject of rowing and went on to other sports themes.
At the same time that he made these initial ventures into outdoor themes, Eakins produced a series of domestic Victorian interiors, often with his father, his sisters or friends as the subjects. Home Scene (1871), Elizabeth at the Piano (1875), The Chess Players (1876), and Elizabeth Crowell and her Dog (1874), each dark in tonality, focus on the unsentimental characterization of individuals adopting natural attitudes in their homes.
It was in this vein that in 1872 he painted his first large scale portrait, Kathrin, in which the subject, Kathrin Crowell, is seen in dim light, playing with a kitten. In 1874 Eakins and Crowell became engaged; they were still engaged five years later, when Crowell died of meningitis in 1879.
Eakins returned to the Pennsylvania Academy to teach in 1876 as a volunteer after the opening of the school's new Frank Furness designed building, became a salaried professor in 1878, and rose to director in 1882. His teaching methods were controversial: there was no drawing from antique casts, and students received only a short study in charcoal, followed quickly by their introduction to painting, in order to grasp subjects in true color as soon as practical. He encouraged students to use photography as an aid to understanding anatomy and the study of motion, and disallowed prize competitions. Although there was no specialized vocational instruction, students with aspirations for using their school training for applied arts, such as illustration, lithography, and decoration, were as welcome as students interested in becoming portrait artists.
Most notable was his interest in the instruction of all aspects of the human figure, including anatomical study of the human and animal body, and surgical dissection; there were also rigorous courses in the fundamentals of form, and studies in perspective which involved mathematics. As an aid to the study of anatomy, plaster casts were made from dissections, duplicates of which were furnished to students. A similar study was made of the anatomy of horses; acknowledging Eakins' expertise, in 1891 his friend the sculptor William Rudolf O'Donovan asked him to collaborate on the commission to create bronze equestrian reliefs of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, for the Soldiers' and Sailors' Arch in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.
Owing to Eakins' devotion to working from life, the Academy's course of study was by the early 1880s the most "liberal and advanced in the world". Eakins believed in teaching by example and letting the students find their own way with only terse guidance. His students included painters, cartoonists, and illustrators such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Thomas Pollock Anshutz, Edward Willis Redfield, Colin Campbell Cooper, Alice Barber Stephens, Frederick Judd Waugh, T. S. Sullivant and A. B. Frost.
He stated his teaching philosophy bluntly, "A teacher can do very little for a pupil & should only be thankful if he don’t hinder him ... and the greater the master, mostly the less he can say." He believed that women should "assume professional privileges" as would men. Life classes and dissection were segregated but women had access to male models (who were nude but for loincloths).
The line between impartiality and questionable behavior was a thin one. When a female student, Amelia Van Buren, asked about the movement of the pelvis, Eakins invited her to his studio, where he undressed and "gave her the explanation as I could not have done by words only". Such incidents, coupled with the ambitions of his younger associates to oust him and take over the school themselves, created tensions between him and the Academy's board of directors. He was ultimately forced to resign in 1886, for removing the loincloth of a male model in a class where female students were present.
The dismissal was a major setback for Eakins. His family was split, with his in-laws siding against him in public dispute. He struggled to protect his name against rumors and false charges, had bouts of ill health, and suffered a humiliation which he felt for the rest of his life. Eakins' popularity amongst the students was such that a number of them broke with the Academy and formed the Art Students' League of Philadelphia (1886-1893), where Eakins subsequently instructed. It was there that he met the student, Samuel Murray, who would become his protege and lifelong friend. He also lectured and taught at a number of other schools, including the Art Students League of New York, the National Academy of Design, Cooper Union, and the Art Students' Guild in Washington DC. Dismissed in March 1895 by the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia for again using a fully nude male model, he gradually withdrew from teaching by 1898.