CHARACTER, integrity, and accuracy define the art of Thomas Eakins. It is solid and serious, totally dedicated to an artistic ideal. It was produced by a precise and yet sensitive transcription of observed visual data onto paper or canvas.
Eakins's art is solemn, studiously constructed, consistent, and painstakingly realistic. It insists that the truth about a person, place, or event lies both within and beneath appearance, and it stakes its existence on the artist's ability to transform cold fact into provocative humanist imagery.
It is also beautifully, if discreetly, painted and so pictorially effective that it has caused some to rate Eakins the most important painter the United States has so far produced.
There are those who disagree. A few critics think him a bit too somber and heavy-handed, and others view him as unimaginative and rather dull. An increasing number of painters indicate a preference for John Singer Sargent, and the public, by and large, still leans toward Winslow Homer.
I also have my doubts. He was, without doubt, an excellent artist, but then, so were Homer and Sargent - to say nothing of Whistler, Albert Ryder, William Chase, and several others. Eakins simply doesn't strike me as good enough to take precedence over the rest. In fact, I suspect this current attempt to establish Eakins as America's greatest artist is rather an artificial one that won't be any more successful than the attempt made in the 1930s and 1940s to designate Ryder America's most important painter.
But then, does it really matter? Isn't it sufficient to state that Eakins and Homer were probably the best American painters of the late 19th century, and that Sargent, Whistler, Chase, Ryder, and a few others were equal to them in certain ways? After all, Sargent and Chase could paint rings around Eakins and Homer, and none could match Whistler for painterly sensibility or Ryder for brooding, semi-abstract pictorial dramas.
But aren't we taking a rather narrow view of things? Who is to say that art history won't designate Jackson Pollock as the most important American painter to date? It wouldn't surprise me a bit. What other American artist, after all, has had as dramatic and crucial an impact upon international art as he? And what other American has had as profound an effect on our very way of thinking about painting as he?
But here again, does it really matter? We cannot, after all, know history's future decisions because we have no way of knowing where art is headed. Who, for instance, could possibly have foreseen in 1940 that paint dribblings such as Pollock's would be considered major art only ten years later? And who, looking ahead in 1972, could have guessed that abstraction would be almost a dead issue by 1982? No, we have no way of knowing. In a hundred years, Pollock may be seen as one of the great prophets of 21st-century art, as representing the last desperate gasp of 20th century modernism, or as merely one of several interesting artists of this century. It is also possible, although I doubt it, that he will be considered one of the great artistic frauds of all time.
It all depends on where our society, culture, and art are going, and on how they will define not only artistic importance but such things as quality, beauty , and truth as well.
But if Pollock's ultimate quality and importance are still in doubt, Eakins's , Homer's, Sargent's, and Whistler's increasingly are not. Enough time has elapsed since they dominated the American art world for us to view them relatively dispassionately and to weigh the pros and cons of their art with a considerable degree of objectivity.
Eakins, in particular, is coming under increasingly serious and respectful scrutiny. Probably his greatest asset is his remarkable consistency, his undeviating awareness of what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it. In this he stands quite apart from Homer, who began as a war correspondent and magazine illustrator and only gradually evolved his art along the way. And from Sargent, who too frequently alternated painterly brilliance and a true flair for portraiture with empty virtuosity and a dependence upon surface charm.
Eakins's art articulates the same kind of integrity associated with the Pilgrim forefathers, with Emerson, and with Thoreau. There is absolutely nothing flashy or superficial about it and neither does it concern itself with trivial ideas or easy effects. His paintings are as solidly built as the house of his period; they stand on the artistic bedrock of careful observation and meticulously detailed studies. He knew anatomy as well as many scientists, placed every single object in his compositions in precisely correct perspective, and saw to it that no technical inconsistencies marred the natural appearances of the people and places he painted.
In a time when great technical knowledge and painstaking craftsmanship were taken for granted, Eakins was known as an uncompromising craftsman and a stickler for accuracy. He insisted that creative imagination be substantiated by observable facts. And so everything he painted, no matter how small and apparently insignificant, was subjected to the intense scrutiny most artists reserved for portrait heads or major landscapes. Even so, he never lost his sense of proportion, his belief that the whole was always greater than the sum of its parts.
Eakins was an exceptional artist, and a magnificent foil to Homer, Sargent, Whistler, Chase, Ryder, and the rest. Taken all together - or taken individually - they are all worthy of our deepest respect.