Is Thomas Eakins a Great Artist ?
William Rush Carving his Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River
"Is Thomas Eakins a Great Artist" ?
This is the question that the intrepid James. F. Cooper
asks in the current issue of his self-published magazine,
"American Arts Quarterly"
(which, other than the enormous expense involved in
publishing and then distributing it at no charge,
is basically a blog,
i.e. the owner says whatever he feels like saying)
Thomas Eakins is, of course, at the summit
of the canon of American Art,
and anyone who dares question such canons
is warmly invited to share purple mushrooms on Mount Shang.
Cooper is following in the footsteps of two recent books on the subject,
The Secret Life of an American Artist" by Henry Adams,
"The Revenge of Thomas Eakins" by Sidney Kirkpatrick
Apparently, some newly discovered papers
reveal Eakins' sordid personal life,
and perhaps even worse,
his utter dependence on photography
(i.e. -- he not only used photographs,
but he projected them onto his canvas)
And apparently, he was not just fired
from the Pennsylvania Academy,
as legend (and John Updike) would have it,
"removed the loincloth of a male model in a class where female students were present"
Much more was allegedly involved:
"Charges of incest, physical abuse by female students, and
unnatural behavior with male students were made
by Eakins own sisters through their husbands"
"while charges were brought by his own staff about the
failure of his teaching methods,
particularly his convoluted drawing formulas based upon
mathematics, isometric drawing, and perspective"
and, perhaps, worst of all:
"The real reason he was fired was the suspicion that
he was an incompetent artist.
His paintings did not sell.
Commissioned portraits were returned,
or never picked up"
"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"
Thomas J. Eagan, 1917
So, of course,
I had run down to the Art Institute of Chicago,
to see if it were true.
(or at least, to see whether Eakins paintings
still gave me pleasure,
which I'm afraid is the only issue
that concerns me as a museum-goer
rather than as moralist or pedagogue)
And yes, I love these portraits !
These people feel so immediate - so present --
( as personalities -- rather than anatomical specimens)
Mary Adeline Williams, 1899
and they are set so well
into their surrounding space,
i.e. the whole rectangle is alive,
with a feeling that is stately and profound
Gallery notes mention that this lady
lived with Eakins and his wife,
and she was known for a buoyant personality,
not at all like the prissy schoolmarm shown above.
Which might be why people rejected his portraits of them,
and he may have been incapable of
making a compelling painting
that was also an acceptable portrait.
So.. perhaps ..
as a professional portraitist
he truly was incompetent.
But 100 years later,
who cares ?
(there are certainly many successful
portrait painters today
whose work has zero value for me)
He also tried his hand at sculpture
(these are only details,
since reflections off the glass case
made wider views impossible)
as they do,
of age and labor,
I find these grim objects very unpleasant.
But there is a certain solemnity about them,
and he's definitely exploring a new genre.
But, returning to our question:
"is Thomas Eakins a Great Artist" ?
Yes, I think so --
i.e. I'd still go to some inconvenience to see his work,
but though he stands out from other American painters,
I wouldn't say that he was as much better
as his fame is greater.
He was grim -- but a transcendent grim can be likable.