Looking at Art: Thomas Eakins's Pivotal Role

In the classical scheme of things, literature has a dual function: to educate and delight. Applying this standard to art, "Thomas Eakins: The Rowing Pictures" succeeds admirably. Small, focused shows like this one (at the Cleveland Museum of Art through May 15) avoid the sensory overload of blockbusters and do what museums ought to do: provide opportunities to think about what makes for great art.

Given the show's almost relaxing pace and diminutive size - nine oils, 14 drawings and watercolors - it is easy to forget how disconcerting Eakins (1844-1916) was in his time. After the early popularity of "Max Schmitt in a Single Scull" (1871) and "The Biglin Brothers Racing" the next year, Eakins alienated many fellow Philadelphians with details that seemed too shocking (the bloody hands of Dr. Samuel Gross in "The Gross Clinic," 1875), or by his behavior. His students drew the nude figure from live models (including Eakins), which led to his dismissal as director of the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts and left a lifelong taint of scandal.

Yet Eakins created paintings such as no one had attempted: images that revealed the beauty of athletic pursuits; images that probed below the surface. He understood the vocabulary of classical composition, and above all, he knew human anatomy. At his death in 1916, he was virtually unknown. But today he is seen as a pivotal figure for breaking new ground and being a major locus of American realism.

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