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Mr. Burgher's Art Facts

Thomas Eakins

Mix Master
About Mr.B

Thomas Eakins: July 25,1844-June 25,1916...United States

"Strain your brain more than your eye."
~Thomas Eakins

American scholar, Walt Whitman, once stated, "I never knew of but one artist, and that's Tom Eakins, who could resist the temptation to see what they think ought to be rather than what is. . . . Eakins is not a painter, he is a force."

Thomas Eakins was a great American artist and teacher. Many consider him the greatest American realist of his generation. He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father was an ornamental writer and teacher. After high school he was taking classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, but was largely disappointed with his advancement in realistic rendering of people, so he took some anatomy classes at Jefferson Medical College. He did this for five years when he set off to search for artistic knowledge. He would do much of his artistic study in Europe under French painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme and French portrait painter Léon Bonnat. Through his travels, he became deeply influenced by the works of Spanish artists Diego Velázquez and Jusepe de Ribera.

Eakins’ study at the Jefferson Medical College would become the subject of one of his most popular paintings. While studying an anatomy, he observed surgeries by Dr. Samuel David Gross. In the painting, The Gross Clinic, Dr. Gross is the major figure in the surgery auditorium, where students are apparently looking at the structure of a leg.

The Gross Clinic
1875. Oil on canvas, 96 X 78 ½ inches. Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.

Another of Eakins’ more famous works is William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River. This strongly side lit painting compositionally centers on a female nude figure. The work was greatly a pull from Eakins’ influence by Gustave Courbet’s Painter’s Studio. This work does get some harsh criticism because of its unfinished look and rough texturing throughout the majority of the work. But this look was completely intended. This work was one his most planned and studied that he ever created. He created sketches, paintings, and sculptures to aid in the process. I think this work is so important because we see his passionate belief that all that is art, painted and sculpted, must begin with the human form.

William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River
1876-77. Oil on canvas. 20 1/8 X 26 1/8 inches. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pa. USA.

After three years in Europe, he set up a studio as well as began to share his knowledge with others as a teacher. Although he was influenced by his European travels, he would admit that "it is well to go abroad and see the works of the old masters, but Americans... must strike out for themselves, and only by doing this will we create a great and distinctly American art." He, most notably like Leonardo da Vinci before him, had a gift for art that worked with science. "The big artist keeps an eye on nature and steals her tools." This combination of art and science, for some odd reason, had brought innovation and controversy to both artists. Teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Eakins was expanded the art curriculum to include several unique components, although they proved to be very effective. First, Eakins, deeply influenced by his time at Jefferson Medical College, would add cadaver dissection into the anatomical study for artists. He felt that artists were on the same level as doctors, both having equal right to dissect the dead. Humans, as well as lions, dogs, cats, and horses were studied and used to create plaster casts. The public was upset by this practice. His next big move was to add a photography class. This was very helpful to students, but when he began taking nude photographs of students, as well as himself, for the studies the public was outraged. But this nude photo shoot was a boys only thing, so the school let it slide. The most radical component he added was allowing a live nude model into the classroom. It was accepted until he began to use the male nude models into his classes that also had female students. Then the public was well beyond outraged. After teaching for ten years, he was forced to resign. This had to be frustrating because he knew that his means, although out of the realm of appropriate for the time, were the correct and best ways to learn the process of becoming a knowledgeable artist. All three methods are common practice today. It is fair to say the Eakins ideas would reshape art education. But at the end of the day he knew he had the financial backing of his family, and he could easily go without his teacher pay check. He was financially set. But bitterly, he moved on. Most of the male students quit and began the Art Students' League of Philadelphia, with Eakins as their unpaid instructor for the next seven years. Eakins most celebrated student to emerge from that period was Henry Ossawa Tanner.

During his years as a teacher, Eakins was working on "A Drawing Manual" based on his lectures. After he was fired, he never finished the project. In 2005 the Yale Press and the Philadelphia Museum of Art published the work, edited by Kathleen Foster, that allows modern students that opportunity to read his lectures, illustrated by his pen and ink drawings. In the book, he covers the principles and methods of three drawing systems: linear perspective, mechanical drawing and isometric drawing.

Because of the issues Eakins had with the public, he spent the later years of his career in isolation from the public. Commissioned work was rare and he was unable to make any real money off of his skills. At the invitation of a doctor friend, he goes off to stay at the B-T Ranch on the edge of the Badlands in the Little Missouri Territory (now North Dakota) for some relaxation. He stays for a relatively short time before returning to Pennsylvania. He was the most skilled artist around, but he had no way to showcase his artworks. "Enthusiasm for one's goal lessens the disagreeableness of working toward it." He grew into a more psychological in his portraits. No painting he ever created granted him to be truly recognized as the definitive master or huge financial gains. It was not until the end of his life that he was seen as an artistic master.

Eakins was a painter, sculptor, teacher, and photographer. Being interested in representing the world as realistically as possible, photography was extremely appealing to Eakins. He was exploring the media as early as 1881 to improve his images in his paintings. He takes his camera to New Jersey to take some photographs that would be used as the source material for a painting. This is the first example of the photograph replacing the sketch.

The year 1902 saw some major shifts for Eakins and his work. He was elected to become as associate for the National Academy of Design and quickly became a full academician and had to offer a work to present as his diploma painting. He chose to to present his work, Wrestlers.

One of my favorites, in Wrestlers, Eakins focuses on American culture, human form, and portraiture are all evident in this painting. Some even believe that this work is a symbolic self protrait. This idea is reached because Eakins often places symbols from the personally traumatic events of his life into his work. The painting is quite important in Eakins history because it was his last genre painting, his last male nude, and his last sporting painting. Eakins battled with his art and teaching careers and struggled to earn recognition for his talents. In this way, perhaps, this painting parallels his own struggles as he nears the end of his life. In the late 1970 the unappreciated painting was sold to the Columbus Museum of Art. When the art director that helped purchase the painting retired, the work went into storage. In 1996 the work was sold to a private collector for a short time until it was sold to a donor for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2006. Among his other sports related subjects were swimmers, boxers, baseball players, hunters, fishermen and even chess.

1899. Oil on canvas. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Los Angeles, California, USA.

Thomas Eakins died in the afternoon on Sunday, June 16, 1916. He died of heart failure and was cremated. His wife’s ashes were added to his urn after her death in 1938 and they were buried.


Mr. Mike Burgher * PO Box 247 * Dallas Center, Iowa. 50063