1916-06-25

THOMAS EAKINS, American artist died on this day (b.1844); A painter, photographer, sculptor, fine arts educator, he was one of the greatest American painters of his time, an innovating teacher, and an uncompromising realist. He was also the most neglected major painter of his era in the U.S.

A letter home to his father in 1868 made his aesthetic clear: “[the female nude] is the most beautiful thing there is in the world except a naked man, but I never yet saw a study of one exhibited … It would be a godsend to see a fine man model painted in the studio with the bare walls, alongside of the smiling smirking goddesses of waxy complexion amidst the delicious arsenic green trees and gentle wax flowers & purling streams running melodious up & down the hills especially up. I hate affectation.”

His portrait of Walt Whitman was the poet’s favorite. Link here For a collection of his beautiful images.

Eakins has been credited with having “introduced the camera to the American art studio”. During his study abroad, he was exposed to the use of photography by the French realists, though the use of photography was still frowned upon as a shortcut by traditionalists. In the late 1870s he was introduced to the photographic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, particularly the equine studies, and became interested in using the camera to study sequential movement.

He performed his own motion studies, usually involving the nude figure, and even developed his own technique for capturing movement on film. Where Muybridge’s system relied on a series of cameras triggered to produce a sequence of individual photographs, Eakins preferred to use a single camera to produce a series of exposures on one negative. Since the 1990s, Eakins has emerged as a major figure in sexuality studies in art history, for both the seeming homoeroticism of his male nudes and for the complexity of his attitudes toward women.

Controversy shaped much of his career as a teacher and as an artist. He insisted on teaching men and women “the same”, used nude male models in female classes and vice versa, and was accused of abusing female students. Recent scholarship suggests that these controversies were grounded in more than the “puritanical prudery” of his colleagues (as has been assumed). Today, scholars see these controversies as caused by a combination of factors such as the bohemianism of Eakins and his circle (in which students, for example, sometimes modeled in the nude for each other), and Eakins’s inclination toward provocative behavior.