Thomas Eakins  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

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.

Controversies

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". (letter to Edward Hornor Coates, September 12, 1886) 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.

Photography

Study in Human Motion

In the late 1870s Eakins was introduced to the photographic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, particularly the equine studies, and became interested in using the camera to study sequential movement. In the mid 1880s, Eakins worked briefly alongside Muybridge in the latter's photographic studio at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Eakins soon performed his own independent motion studies, also usually involving the nude figure, and even developed his own technique for capturing movement on film. Whereas Muybridge's system relied on a series of cameras triggered to produce a sequence of individual photographs, Eakins preferred to use a single camera to produce a series of exposures superimposed on one negative. Eakins was more interested in precision measurements on a single image to aid in translating a motion into a painting, while Muybridge preferred separate images that could also be displayed by his primitive movie projector.

After Eakins obtained a camera in 1880, several paintings, such as Mending the Net (1881) and Arcadia (1883), are known to have been derived at least in part from his photographs. Some figures appear to be detailed transcriptions and tracings from the photographs by some device like a magic lantern, which Eakins then took pains to cover up with oil paint. Eakins' methods appear to be meticulously applied, and rather than shortcuts, were likely used in a quest for accuracy and realism.

An excellent example of Eakins' use of this new technology is his painting A May Morning in the Park, which relied heavily on photographic motion studies to depict the true gait of the four horses pulling the coach of patron Fairman Rogers. But in typical fashion, Eakins also employed wax figures and oil sketches to get the final effect he desired.

The so-called "Naked Series", which began in 1883, were nude photos of students and professional models which were taken to show real human anatomy from several specific angles, and were often hung and displayed for study at the school. Later, less regimented poses were taken indoors and out, of men, women, and children, including his wife. The most provocative, and the only ones combining males and females, were nude photos of Eakins and a female model (see below). Although witnesses and chaperones were usually on site, and the poses were mostly traditional in nature, the sheer quantity of the photos and Eakins’ overt display of them may have undermined his standing at the Academy. In all, about eight hundred photographs are now attributed to Eakins and his circle, most of which are figure studies, both clothed and nude, and portraits. No other American artist of his time matched Eakins' interest in photography, nor produced a comparable body of photographic works.


List of works



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