Realist painter Eakins was controversial, innovative

He was one of America's great realist painters, but he was also stubborn, radical, and nonconformist. He believed that the au naturel human body was the root of all art, and lost a teaching job because of it.

Uncompromising and controversial, Philadelphia's native son Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) was also a groundbreaking artist. The Philadelphia Museum of Art's new retrospective, "Thomas Eakins: American Realist," both confirms and exults in that fact.

The exhibit, which opened earlier this month as the centerpiece of this museum's 125th-anniversary celebration, is the first retrospective of Eakins' work since the same curator, Darrel Sewell, completed one here 19 years ago.

Eakins brought training in Paris, mathematical precision, and frequently the then-new art of photography to his now-classic renderings of scullers, sailors, landscapes, and portrait subjects - and sometimes took heat for it.

He was booted from his post at the prestigious, but prudish, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts after undraping a male nude model before a coed class, as well as for his scandalous nude photos.

"Eakins's making of art was, in a sense, a constant exploration of subjects," Mr. Sewell explained during a preview of the exhibition, which displays many of Eakins's recently discovered photographs - and some sketches and paintings - for the first time (or for the first time in decades, as is the case with the majestic "Cowboys in the Bad Lands").

Eakins is perhaps most famous for his paintings of Schuylkill River scullers John and Bernard Biglin, and for scenes of racing on the Delaware River. The exhibition includes his perspective drawings for "The Pair Oared Shell," made so he could calculate the rowers' reflections on the water. (Eakins later wrote, "There is so much beauty in the reflections that it is generally well worth while to try to get them right.")

He made painstaking academic studies for many of his pieces, often going from sketches and preliminary paintings to sculptures. One of his most elaborate projects was "William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River"; the exhibition contains every stage of its evolution, including the statue Rush created as Eakins painted him.

For his "A May Morning in the Park (The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand)," a portrayal of a sunny morning carriage ride, he made plaster reliefs of horse skeletons and bronze sculptures of each horse (basing hoof positions on Eadweard Muybridge's then-revolutionary photographic studies of movement) before commencing painting. The sculptures show that his versatility went beyond oil, watercolor, and film.

Eakins was also one of the first professional artists to explore "the pictorial potential of baseball," according to Sewell, but even then, Eakins defied standard notions of how to depict athletes. He presented them in practice, or, in the case of his boxers, not in action but during "moments in the psychology of the event."

His unorthodox approach extended to portraiture; he refused to prettify his subjects, instead conveying a realistic mood - flattering or not. Those beautiful, sometimes haunting portraits didn't win him more commissions, however.

"He wasn't very interested in traditional portraiture at all," Sewell says. "Not many people were brave enough to ask him to paint them."

Fittingly, the last painting in the exhibition is a self-portrait of sorts. "William Rush and his Model" revisits an earlier painting of his sculptor-mentor, using a nude model for his "Allegorical Figure." It's a stripped-down version of the original, featuring Eakins's first painted depiction of a full-length female figure with frontal nudity. He also turns the sculptor's face away and paints a burly body that's apparently his own.

In the hefty exhibit catalog, essayist Marc Simpson writes, "It is difficult to resist the call to see this as an autobiographical statement of his lifetime's work: the dedicated craftsman, using his skill and his tools to assist the figure of Art down to earth."

Thomas Eakins: American Realist' closes Jan. 6, then moves to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris (Feb. 5-May 12, 2002) and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (June 18-Sept. 15, 2002).

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