Anatomy Of a Portraitist: The Observant Eye of Eakins

The versatile painter caught the rationalism and naturalism of his day

Artist Thomas Eakins rowed upstream for much of his professional life. During his 50 years of painting, he achieved little popular success, received few commissions, and made only modest sales. Had it not been for his father's financial stability, Eakins might never have been able to pursue his craft.

But in the years after the artist's death in 1916, and because of his widow Susan Macdowell Eakins's efforts, attention slowly shifted toward recognition of this important 19th-century American artist.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York takes pride in its longstanding interest in Eakins, as demonstrated in the current exhibition, ``Thomas Eakins and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.'' The exhibit honors the 150th anniversary of the artist's birth and features 29 of Eakins's works in oil, watercolor, and photography.

Eakins's history with the Metropolitan started in 1881 when he presented the museum with ``The Chess Players'' (1876). In 1916, two months before Eakins's death, the museum purchased ``Push for Rail'' (1874). Then in 1917, the Met launched a large memorial exhibition, a collaboration between curator Bryson Burroughs and the artist's widow. That exhibit inspired other museums to honor the underappreciated painter.

To date, the Metropolitan's collection contains some of Eakins's most distinguished oils, including ``The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull)'' (1871), seven of his 28 known watercolors, and many photographs.

As an American realist, Eakins was known for his scientific or academic approach to technique, which branded him as somewhat old-fashioned in the art world at the time. Nonetheless, his interests in the arts and sciences seemed to mesh naturally. While he studied painting in Paris with Jean-Leon Gme and fostered a longtime interest in music, he also attended anatomy lectures at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and had a knack for mathematics. Today, he is generally recognized for his portraits and paintings of sportsmen, specifically rowers.

His scientific concerns showed up in perspective studies and the subject matter he chose. Basically, he painted people he admired engaged in work, sport, or other activity: his father (``The Writing Master,'' ``The Chess Players''), his brother-in-law (``The Thinker, Portrait of Louis N. Kenton''), friend and rower ``Max Schmitt in a Single Scull,'' surgeons (``The Gross Clinic''), his sister Francis Eakins (``At the Piano''), friend Walt Whitman, and more.

By some accounts, his portraiture was so accurate in deciphering the psychology of his sitters that his subjects often refused to accept the finished work as a gift.

Art scholars often cite Velazquez and Rembrandt as influences on Eakins, as well as more-contemporary French painters.

Teaching was another part of Thomas Eakins's career. From 1876 to 1886, he was an instructor and then director at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he had studied. But his tenure ended abruptly. Although details are sketchy, most accounts hold that Eakins's insistence on using nude models in the classroom upset the school's board and eventually led to his coerced resignation. On one occasion, he evidently removed the loincloth of a male model during a life-drawing class that included both women and men.

While some modern-day critics chalk up such incidents to Eakins's high regard for naturalism and classical teaching, newly found evidence suggests that there were other scandals surrounding Eakins's behavior that led to his departure. Soon after Eakins left the academy, he formed the Art Students League of Philadelphia with a group of students who resigned with him.

The visitor to the Metropolitan's exhibit, however, need not be concerned with controversy. One will most likely note the beauty and intensity of Eakins's work. All his subjects seem pensive, reflective, or absorbed in a task, whether it is ``Mrs. Mary Arthur'' (1900) knitting, or a friend rowing in ``John Biglin in a Single Skull'' (1873).

The portraits of stoic and distinguished individuals are punctuated by a few naturalist photos as well as one strikingly somber painting, ``The Artist's Wife and His Setter Dog'' (1884-89). The gaunt features of Susan Eakins - her slumped posture, the red circles under her eyes, and her limp grasp of the book, suggest that Eakins's troubles with the academy manifested themselves in his art. From early studies of the painting, it appears that the artist roughened his wife's appearance, despite her tireless devotion to him.

Possibly the most arresting painting in this exhibition is ``The Thinker, Portrait of Louis N. Kenton.'' One can't help but wonder if Eakins saw a little of himself in this portrait of an introspective and rational-looking man.

* The exhibit continues through Feb. 26.

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