Is Thomas Eakins a Great Artist?

by James F. Cooper

Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic, 1875 Philadelphia Museum of Art and  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Today, Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) is generally recognized as an American master; indeed, some place him at the very pinnacle of American art. The Gross Clinic, completed by Eakins in 1875 after a year of torturous effort and now regarded as the centerpiece of his career, was recently the object of a heated bidding war between the city of Philadelphia and a very rich buyer who wished to add it to her collection of American treasures in another state. The monumental 2002 retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its accompanying catalogue, which launched a new wave of interest in the artist’s career, featured some of Eakins’s best, including The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) from 1871, Swimming (1885) and Singing a Pathetic Song (1881).

Now, several new biographies have dredged up the old controversies and scandals that tainted his career. The precipitating event was the discovery, in 1984, of the Charles Bregler Collection of thousands of Eakins documents, letters, memorabilia and photographs, hidden away for almost a century. Purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1985, these documents are examined in great detail by Henry Adams in Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist (Oxford University Press, 2005). They have done much to lend credence to the original charges that led to Eakins’s dismissal as Professor of Drawing and Painting by the directors of the Pennyslvania Academy in 1885. Indeed, the book raises several additional new charges of bizarre personal behavior. Adams’s research also supports the contention that Lloyd Goodrich, in the first (1933) biography of Eakins, “reported information very selectively, suppressing things that seemed odd about Eakins’s behavior, and even deliberately altering facts to support his view of Eakins’s character.”1 It all makes for a remarkably interesting read, with sordid twists and turns, several deaths, suicides, breakdowns and insanity.

Almost lost in this soap opera is the only truly relevant question: is Thomas Eakins a great artist? Do these dark stories of impropriety have a direct bearing on the quality of his painting? Adams argues convincingly that the dour subject matter of Eakins’s paintings was a result of his life experiences. Sidney K. Kirkpatrick draws a similar conclusion in The Revenge of Thomas Eakins (Yale University Press, 2006). Indeed, both attribute Eakins’s growing popularity today precisely to the fact that he seems to have flouted Victorian social and sexual mores. Yet Adams and, to a lesser degree, Kirkpatrick also point out that the newly discovered personal papers, secreted by Bregler, Eakins’s long-time assistant, make one wonder why the artist wasn’t arrested at some point. More importantly, I believe, the new documentation challenges the integrity of his art and his place as the most important art instructor of human anatomy and figure drawing in nineteenth-century America.

Some viewers, myself included, have always been disturbed by the soupy darkness that envelops the majority of Eakins’s paintings. It was very apparent in the recent retrospective at the Met. When Eakins returned from three years of study with Jean-Léon Gérôme at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, his palette was much brighter; his brushstrokes were phlegmatic and daring. Between 1870 and 1873 he created a series of promising canvases depicting scull racing on the Schuylkill River. The tour-de-force Max Schmidt in a Single Scull (1871) and The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake (1873) impressed the Philadelphia art world with their strong compositions, solid draftsmanship, subtle color, strong chiaroscuro, lovely impressions of nature and the river, and painterly brushwork. Before coming back to the United States, Eakins had taken a trip to Madrid to study the paintings of Velázquez, whose portraits had a profound influence on Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas. For a brief time back in Philadelphia it looked as if Eakins were going to emerge as an American Manet or, at the very least, an American Pissarro. Then, inexplicably, darkness flooded his paintings. Perhaps, the terrible anecdotes that Adams and Kirkpatrick have chronicled weighed him down.

Eakins was only twenty-two when he entered Gérôme’s atelier. It was considered an honor to study with one of the most successful history painters in France. Many Americans applied. Eakins, who appealed to the master in person, was accepted, but Gérôme had misgivings as time went by. In three years of study Eakins never finished a single study of the human figure, required for completion of the course. Eakins returned to Philadelphia without completing his studies. Nevertheless, he presented himself as one of Gérôme’s favorite pupils and claimed to be very knowledgeable about the human figure. Eakins quickly became a professor of drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy. For the next ten years he was regarded as the supreme instructor of figure drawing in the United States and lectured widely in Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Yet many art critics and patrons disliked his paintings. One critic described Eakins’s paintings as “lifeless.”2 Mariana Van Rensselaer, one of the foremost art critics of the period, intuitively grasped the problem when she wrote that Eakins’s paintings were “scientifically true, but…artistically false.”3

It was known during Eakins’s lifetime that he was a pioneer in the use of photography to assist the artist in understanding human anatomy and motion. What was not known until now was the extent that Eakins relied on photographs as his primary reference source for portraits and scenes. The Bregler Collection reveals that Eakins shot thousands of photographs, many of them of nude male and female models, which he projected directly onto his canvases with the use of an opaque projector. He traced them and made scratch marks to guide his brush, then camouflaged the incisions with layers of paint. Eakins and his wife, Susan, took great care to keep the projection stage of the process and the source photographs a secret. She left instructions that all records and photographs should be burned upon her death. When she died in 1939, Bregler rescued the entire contents of the studio; it remained hidden until 1984.

Thomas Eakins, The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull), 1871 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York CityMany artists have used photography as a primary or secondary source, but Eakins and his enablers, who included his wife and assistants, went to extraordinary trouble to hide any evidence of this activity. The publicity might have tarnished the credibility of the artist, who during his lifetime was considered the premier expert and lecturer on human anatomy. But why should this make any difference in our evaluation of Eakins’s art? The information provides a clue to what’s wrong with Eakins’s paintings. It explains why the figures in his compositions seem tacked together artificially. It explains the awkward application of paint within the linear contour of a figure, which doesn’t seem to correspond to its volume and lighting. It explains why some of his portraits seem so lifeless. The color of the red dress in the 1903 painting The Actress (Portrait of Suzanne Santje) appears to be troweled on with a palette knife without regard to the human form wearing the dress. Photographs of Margaret Harrison, who posed for Singing a Pathetic Song (1881), discovered in the Bregler Collection, are exactly like the image replicated in the finished painting.

The most disturbing disclosure about Eakins’s work is just how he was able to achieve the much-lauded technical truth of his portraits. Eakins sometimes shot as many as forty pictures for each subject. However, claims Kirkpatrick, these technical revelations “do not detract from a viewer’s appreciation of Eakins’s paintings. Instead, they put them in a fascinating new context.”4Context is the operative word here. Kirkpatrick is not looking with the eye of an artist. For him, the aesthetics of Eakins’s work is not the issue. Modernity, for Kirkpatrick, as it is for many strong advocates of Eakins’s work, means being a rebel against the status quo, against the values of society and its cultural institutions. But was Eakins a rebel? The Bregler papers reveal the identities of the heretofore undisclosed witnesses who testified against Eakins at the secret hearings conducted by the directors of the Pennsylvania Academy, which led to his removal as professor of art. The myth is that Eakins was discharged for removing a loin cloth from a male model in front of a classroom of female art students. Indeed, the frontispiece of Kirkpatrick’s book features a quote by Eakins: “I see no impropriety in looking at the most beautiful of Nature’s works, the naked figure.” The truth of the matter is quite different. The directors initially defended Eakins, calling the incident “a tempest in a teapot.”5 It was only after more serious accusations were raised that the board was moved to act. Charges of incest, physical abuse of several female students and unnatural behavior with male students were made by two of Eakins’s own sisters (through their husbands). Moral failings are, regrettably, part of many artists’ biographies. More important to our inquiry are the charges, brought by his own staff, about the failure of his teaching methods, particularly his convoluted drawing formulas based upon mathematics, isometric drawing and perspective. The faculty particularly objected to the cancellation by Eakins of all courses on aesthetic theory, art history and sketching from nature. Eakins’s famous unpublished Drawing Manual (published in a hardbound illustrated edition by the Philadelphia Museum in 2005) is now revealed as a reactionary and in many ways preposterous text on perspective. Incredibly, although he shot “several thousand” photographs of the naked human form, there is not one single drawing or reference to the human body contained in its pages. The manual is limited to perspective studies of simple mechanical objects—a cube, a chair, a table.

The real reason Eakins was fired was the suspicion that he was an incompetent artist. Those who testified against him were younger, more modernist artists who had worked with him. Eakins’s paintings did not sell. Commissioned portraits were returned or never picked up. These controversies served as distractions from the real issue, the poor quality of his art. The Met retrospective in 2002 was, for me, a sobering experience. It began with the exciting paintings of rowing sculls on the Schuylkill River but quickly bogged down in a string of dark, soupy, unattractive works, occasionally broken by a portrait of some merit. His most famous painting is The Gross Clinic (1875), painted only a few years after his return from studying in Paris with Gérôme. To this day, Eakins’s reputation hinges upon this monumental work. He painted it as a tour de force, representing the host city, Philadelphia, at the first World’s Fair to be held in America, on the centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. A great pavilion was erected by the city of Philadelphia to hold the American art. To Eakins’s chagrin, when the fair opened, The Gross Clinic was nowhere to be seen in the American exhibition hall. After many embarrassing inquiries he was directed to an army-post hospital, where his painting had been hung between a pair of cots holding poorly modeled papier-mâchè patients. The few contemporary writers who reviewed it shared the feeling of the judges that it was not suitable for viewing, owing to its “graphic nature.” The New York Herald called the work “decidedly unpleasant and sickeningly real in all its gory details.”6 The New York Tribune called it “powerful, horrible…yet fascinating.”7 Another critic called it a “degradation of art.” The majority of comments focused on its realistic depiction of the bloody patient’s body and the stained hands of Dr. Gross (who was also very unhappy with the results). Few critics ventured to judge it aesthetically, although some made derogatory comments about the darkness of the color. It languished unwanted for two years, until it was purchased for $200 by alumni of Jefferson Medical College.

The revival of Eakins’s reputation is based upon the artist’s perceived integrity, brutal honesty and high moral stance. Despite all the new information on Eakins’s scandalous life, both Adams and Kirkpatrick consider The Gross Clinic a masterpiece. Kirkpatrick writes: “No artist since the Renaissance had overcome such challenges in arrangement of figures and action or composed a work of such intellectual and metaphysical scope.”8 John Russell, writing for The New York Times, concurs: “We prize Eakins above all for a new dimension of moral awareness that he brought to American painting.” He concludes: “We ask ourselves whether Thomas Eakins was not the greatest American painter who ever lived.”9 It is this very question which drew me to re-examine the painting at its temporary installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Eakins’s monumental effort, eight by seven feet, portrays the celebrated surgeon Dr. Samuel D. Gross removing a piece of infected bone from the thigh of a patient suffering from osteomyelitis. Five doctors are assisting him in this delicate operation.10 The surgery is being observed by almost thirty medical students in the amphitheater at Jefferson Medical College. Gross is depicted deep in thought, pausing momentarily with scalpel in hand. A strong light from above illuminates the dome of Gross’s head and the heads of the doctors working on the patient. William Innes Homer, author of Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art (Abbeville Press, 1992), compares The Gross Clinic to Rembrandt’s masterpieces The Night Watch (1642) and the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulip (1632). Homer praises the American artist, but the comparison immediately draws attention to what is wrong with Eakins’s painting. The darkness surrounding the figures in both Rembrandt works is rich, and the deep velvet blacks add greatly to the atmosphere. The black background which covers almost two-thirds of The Gross Clinic is essentially a dark wash tinted with red. All of the doctors and several of the students are dressed in black, including the patient’s mother, shown directly right and below Dr. Gross’s right hand. The perspective of the painting is askew because Eakins has used white in the background behind Dr. Gross to frame his own self-portrait (the figure seated in the first row of the auditorium sketching the scene). The chalky white of the table he is drawing on sits visually on the surface of the canvas, refusing to recede into the background. To make matters worse, Gross’s shirt is almost the same tone and chroma as the tabletop behind him. Eakins takes no advantage of the painting’s apparent “flatness.” He makes little attempt to organize the figures and the negative or “empty” spaces between figures into formal, cohesive elements of color and line, which communicate visually with each other and the entire composition. Indeed, his preparatory oil sketches for the final work reveal the same confusion and murkiness.

Why did Eakins’s scene disturb so many people? The entire surface of the huge painting is dominated by red, possibly alizarin crimson. Everything has a red tint, the blacks, the whites and the greys. Deliberately or unconsciously, Eakins’s entire surface is the color of human bone marrow. The blood on Dr. Gross’s hand and the hands of the surgeons assisting him are merely highlights of the pervasive ghoulish color that permeates every inch of the canvas. Dr. Gross’s portrait is very well done, although he often complained about the number of sittings he was forced to endure, but the other portraits are remarkably bland and uninteresting. The dark area directly behind Dr. Gross’s head is scrubbed in, with heavy phlegmatic brushstrokes that sit visually on the surface of the canvas. This might work in an Impressionist or Fauve painting but is distracting in a scene that purports to be realist. The heavy brushstrokes extend across the center of the painting, where they stop abruptly in mid-air, in front of a hallway leading into the auditorium. To complicate matters further, there are two figures standing in the aisle of the hallway, rendered in an unconvincing dark wash. Similarly rendered are many of the ghostly figures in the auditorium. The background color suggests dark brown gravy, a problem that increasingly afflicts many of Eakins’s later works. Eakins’s reputation as a professor of art rested upon his knowledge of anatomy and perspective. In his manual for artists Eakins writes: “the one and only law of perspective: Twice as far off, half as big.” He breaks his own cardinal rule in his depiction of the only female figure in the room full of men. The patient’s mother is seated directly behind Dr. Gross, her clenched hands flung across her face in a melodramatic gesture, yet she looks about a third of Gross’s size. Much of Eakins’s reputation rested on his knowledge of the human body and his ability to paint it. There is little evidence of that here in The Gross Clinic.

Eakins’s most aesthetically successful works are probably his earliest, particularly outdoor scenes. Adams concurs with Kirkpatrick that Eakins’s reputation rests upon the perception of “honesty” and “integrity” in his portraits.11 However, The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) of 1871 and The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake (1873) are demonstrably among the most successful compositions Eakins ever painted. Did the artist lose his nerve? His paintings grew darker and muddier thereafter, with brief flashes when he pulled himself together. Singing a Pathetic Song (1881) and Swimming (1885) are the last successful major works he produced, although he continued to paint for another thirty years. However, the Bregler Collection reveals all of the figures, nude and clothed, in both of these paintings were traced from photographs, which Eakins took great pains to disguise. He was still a relatively young man in 1886 when he was fired from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Subsequently, he was fired from several other drawing academies. Did the controversy over his firings promote a reputation for “honesty,” “integrity” and “high moral standards”12? Alexander Eliot writes: Eakins’s “greatest virtue [honesty] counted against him.”13 But is it rather his dishonesty about his secretive professional and personal life that sets him apart?

Adams, mesmerized by the scandals in Eakins’s private and professional life, neglects what is paramount: was Eakins a great artist? Would we spend as much time on the scandals in the lives of van Gogh, Gauguin, Rimbaud, Toulouse Lautrec and Baudelaire? No, of course not. They are modernists and expected to misbehave. In the misguided attempt to transform Eakins into a modernist, far too little attention has been directed toward the quality of his work. Lloyd Goodrich maintained that “Eakins was the greatest American artist,” while John Singer Sargent was “superficial.”14 Yet Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward D. Boit (1882) is a far superior figurative-group painting than The Gross Clinic. Sargent brilliantly resolves the challenges of composition, darkness and light, color, brushwork and realism that confounded Eakins. Ironically, Sargent composed this miracle of elegance and beauty when he was only twenty-six, five years younger than Eakins when he painted The Gross Clinic. Both of these American artists had trained at the École des Beaux-Arts. From the beginning, Sargent’s genius was recognized by his teachers and fellow students. “Eakins has the unique distinction of having had more of his paintings destroyed by disgruntled patrons than any other artist of modern times,” observes Kirkpatrick. It is not enough to be a martyr, real or perceived, to modernism or any other movement. We must judge artists, contemporary or historical, on the integrity and beauty of their work.

Notes

1 Henry Adams, Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 35.
2 Sidney J. Kirkpatrick, The Revenge of Thomas Eakins (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 174.
3 Ibid., p. 251.
4 Ibid., p. 14.
5 Adams, Eakins Revealed, p. 51.
6 Kirkpatrick, The Revenge of Thomas Eakins, p. 196.
7 Ibid., p. 196
8 Ibid., p. 190.
9 John Russell, “Thomas Eakins,” in Reading Russell: Essays 1941–1988 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989), p.108.
10 This operation was considered a serious medical proceedure in the nineteenth century.
11 Adams, Eakins Revealed, p. 25.
12 Ibid., p. 25.
13 Alexander Eliot, Three Hundred Years of American Painting (New York: Time Incorporated, 1957), p. 138.
14 Cited, Adams, Eakins Revealed, p. 24.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2007, Volume 24, Number 2