Holding a magnifying glass to Philadelphia's social fabric

The city that floated its tall ships earlier this summer has also launched a see-worthy triad of exhibitions in honor of the city's tricentennial.

The anchor of the three exhibitions - ''Thomas Eakins: Artist of Philadelphia'' - closes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Aug. 1, but will then be at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts Sept. 22-Nov. 28.

There is poignant irony in the catalog statement by a former museum director, Jean Sutherland Boggs, that ''the painter Thomas Eakins is so quintessentially Philadelphian that an exhibition devoted to his work seemed a natural and even inevitable choice.'' Except for the four years he studied abroad as a young man, Eakins spent his life in Philadelphia, and his oeuvre is like a magnifying glass held up to the city's social fabric during the 19th century.

Given the fact that Eakins also taught painting and drawing at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy for 10 years, it is all the more incomprehensible that in 1894 he could write this depressing summation of his career: ''My honors are misunderstanding, persecution & neglect, enhanced because unsought.''

It was not until 1926 that the museum acquired an Eakins painting, and were it not for the bequests of Mrs. Eakins and a family friend, Mary Adeline Williams, in 1929 and 1930 that form the core of the collection, the museum would not be in a position to make this grand gesture.

The exhibition offers about 125 paintings, drawings, sculptures, watercolors, and photographs - about half drawn from the museum's holdings and the rest from other collections. Today these works seem an awesome display of genius, but when first seen, they were very much at odds with their time.

Eakins was a maverick, in some respects more scientist than artist in his passion for accuracy. To depict the figure correctly, he studied anatomy at a medical school, and some of his later paintings of operations scandalized his contemporaries and may still offend some viewers. The further fact that Eakins insisted that his students draw and paint from the nude figure (male and female) resulted in his dismissal.

I single out these examples because they illustrate the revolutionary attitude in this otherwise conventional man, as well as his emphasis on naturalism. But his work usually took an entirely different direction. For instance, in the first room, where the early Eakins paintings of rowing and sailing scenes are on display (the most famous being ''Max Schmitt in a Single Scull''), one is more impressed on a technical level by the drawings than by the finished paintings. Eakins's studies of perception and the reflection of water are as meticulous as an engineer's or a physicist's, and they are derived from a sensibility that regards art not only as inspiration but scientific discipline.

Eakins was a perfectionist, and it paid off - if not in currency, at least in legacy. As rigorous in their precision are his animal studies, particularly the bronze reliefs of ''The Mare Josephine,'' which simulate a gestation process. Eakins drew heavily on Eadweard Muybridge's photographs of horses and figures in motion, and he even took his own photographs to perfect his rendering of anatomy. He seems at times almost Leonardo-like in his ability to cross easily over the borders separating medias and disciplines and to perceive the relationships between them.

Darrell Sewell, the museum's curator of American art, who organized the exhibition, wisely chose to arrange it thematically as well as chronologically.

''Eakins worked in terms of exploration of themes,'' he explains. ''He would explore themes until he exhausted them, and then abandon them.''

The one theme he never abandoned was portraiture. Portraits were the only small measure of success Eakins enjoyed, and he prophetically wrote from Paris to his father: ''One terrible anxiety is off my mind. I will never have to give up painting, for even now I could paint heads good enough to make a living anywhere in America.''

Figures are present in almost all of Eakins's work, and they frequently form the focal point of the painting, as in his depictions of sporting events, Colonial subjects, and his controversial genre painting, ''William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River,'' in which the nude female figure is subjected to his typically repeated and exhaustive analysis.

In retrospect, however, Eakins's portraits seem the bedrock of his being, in which he reveals the most about his own personality. His refusal to idealize his subjects - to render instead the anatomy of their inner being - demonstrates the fidelity to the truth that epitomizes his realist approach. He sometimes manipulated the appearance and environment of his subjects to create a mental, rather than a literal, reality. Also apparent is his love of music in such admiring and admirable portraits as ''The Cello Player,'' ''The Concert Singer, '' and the ''Portrait of Mrs. William D. Frishmuth (Antiquated Music).''

The most provocative aspect of the Eakins portraits is their atmosphere. Often painted in chiaroscuro, a somber mood prevails. Light, as in Rembrandt portraits, seems a mystical as well as a functional presence. Usually the sitter does not acknowledge the painter, but stares into space with an air of reverie and absorption, as if looking beyond the things of this world. Sometimes in his female portraits, such as ''An Actress'' and ''Portrait of Maud Cook,'' there is a mood of languor bordering on melancholy, as if the painter had caught his subject brooding unawares - again Eakins striving for a deeper level of truth.

Finally, we have the portraits in which the sitter confronts the painter head on, as in ''Portrait of a Lady With a Setter Dog,'' ''Portrait of Mrs. Thomas Eakins,'' or even his own self-portrait in which the subject's gaze is so penetrating and his personality so palpable that one averts one's eyes, as if caught staring at a real person.

The subject rarely smiles in an Eakins portrait, and one likes to think that had he been painting in a more propitious time, he could have projected onto those grave and solemn faces an occasional smile.

In addition to the Eakins, two sculpture exhibitions, both one-man shows, add an appropriate combination of art and history to the tricentennial celebration. But that's about all they have in common.

The first, chronologically speaking, is a tribute to William Rush, who lived from 1756 to 1833 and earned the distinction of being called ''America's first native-born sculptor,'' as well as one of Philadelphia's favorite native sons.

The most unusual feature of this Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts exhibition , which continues through Nov. 21, is Rush's wood carving, particularly the figureheads. Many of his historical and allegorical busts, statues, and ornamental objects are, of course, also on display.

In contrast, Red Grooms's ''Philadelphia: Cornucopia,'' at the Institute of Contemporary Art through Sept. 12, seems light-years away from the serious, stately work of his predecessor. Grooms sprang out of the pop movement, and is best known for walk-through environments that are an antic and somewhat surrealistic interpretation of cities, events, or locations.

''Cornucopia'' falls into that category by re-creating the signing of the Declaration of Independence and spoofing, at times irreverently, episodes from the city's art history.

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