Eakins exhibition is a Realist treat

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  July 24, 2002 at 10:23 AM
share with facebook
share with twitter

NEW YORK, July 23 (UPI) -- A blockbuster retrospective exhibition of 150 paintings, photographs, and sculpture by Thomas Eakins reveals more about the 19th century giant of American art than any previous show of his work, demonstrating how he pushed the limits of academic art to a new level of psychological insight.

The exhibit is making the final stop in a three-city tour at the Metropolitan Museum through Sept. 15, having been seen previously at the Philadelphia Museum, its organizer, and the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. Eakins was born and bred in Philadelphia and polished his painterly skills when he was in his early twenties as a student of the noted historical-genre painter Jean-Leon Gerome in Paris.

This is the first major Eakins show in New York in 32 years and the first show ever to touch on the two controversial aspects of the artist's career -- his penchant for homoerotic themes and his use of the camera to capture the original imagery used in his paintings. It also is outstanding for emphasizing Eakins' scientific interests in mechanics, anatomy, movement, and even medicine.

Reunited in this exhibition for the first time in 85 years are Eakins' two monumental medical paintings, "The Gross Clinic" of 1875 and "The Agnew Clinic" of 1889. Both Dr. Samuel Gross and Dr. D. Hayes Agnew are shown in operating theaters lecturing to students as assisting physicians carry out surgery. The subject matter was considered shocking at the time although Rembrandt had made pioneer use of it in "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp" 250 years before.

Light falls on Gross and Agnew so that they are illuminated in the manner of Old Testament prophets speaking grandly to a rapt audience seen in semi-darkness, a wonderful example of Rembrandtian chiaroscuro. Of special dramatic interest in "The Gross Clinic" is the cringing, black-clad figure of the mother of the boy undergoing thigh surgery, hiding a tearful face in the crook of her arm, her hand almost claw-like in its expression of terror and grief.

Eakins devoted his early career to male sporting scenes, including those famous pictures of sculling on the Schuylkill River, hunting, fishing, playing baseball, boxing, and wresting, and meditative indoor scenes featuring women. His interest in the male nude, which has been interpreted as a closeted sexual interest, was never better displayed than in the powerful 1885 composition, "Swimming," showing a group of men and boys disporting themselves on a stone river jetty.

Such frank, sexual imagery has been compared by one literary scholar to the imagery in Walt Whitman's poem, "Song of Myself."

"Swimming" is one of his last paintings based on photographs or magic lantern projections of photographs on canvas or paper for tracing with pencil, and there are many illustrations of this methodology in the exhibition. From 1886 on, Eakins more or less devoted himself to portrait painting that went beyond the mere creation of likenesses in oil and entered the very spirit of the sitter and his or her psychological state of mind.

Walt Whitman, who treasured his glowingly warm portrait by Eakins above all others, once commented, "Eakins is not a painter; he is a force."

Perhaps the painter's greatest achievement is "The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton (1900)," a vigorously painted study of melancholy introspection that suggests modern man taking the measure of himself at the dawn of a new millennium. It is matched in depth by the candid bust portrait of his aging wife, Susan, painted in 1899, her handsome face reflecting strain, suffering, and perhaps surrender to forces she has not been able to control.

How this countenance would mature is foretold in the celebrated full-figure portrait of a younger, slenderer Mrs. Eakins, painted 15 years before.

Dressed in blue, she slumps in a straight-backed chair, book in hand and a sleeping setter dog at her feet, and her questioning eyes look out from a sunken, sallow face that already signals defeat. These two portraits give new meaning to the descriptive phrase "long suffering."

Mrs. Eakins' extended right foot displays a stocking in an unexpected bright red hue, and closer inspection of the other paintings in the show will find a spot of red as a focal point in almost all of them -- a rose in a woman's hair, a toy in a picture of children at play, a boat in a sculling scene, an umbrella in a coaching scene, a sailor's shirt in a sailboat. Finding the red element can become an amusing game.

Eakins was well known as an artist in his lifetime but real fame and serious profit from his work had eluded him at the time of his death in 1916. The Metropolitan Museum, which has one of the largest collections of Eakins paintings, had owned one of his works since 1881 but it was a gift to the museum from the artist. He is relatively unknown or unheard of in Europe, so that this show's visit to Paris was a revelation to French critics and the public at large.

He was one of the last of America's great Realists who preferred to cling to his narrow academic viewpoint although he had encountered early Impressionism, most certainly the work of Edouard Manet, in Paris.

However, he was adventurous in pursuing unusual artistic material including studies of American blacks and of cowboy life in the Dakota Territory, and he was forced to resign as director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in 1886 for removing the loincloth from a male model in front of female students to trace the course of a muscle. He is even known to have posed in the nude himself, a no-no for a teacher in those Victorian times.

Eakins' achievements as a sculptor are explored for the first time in this show. He created wax models for several of the figures he painted, a Renaissance practice used to judge light and shadow from various viewpoints, and some of these are on display. There also are two decorative oval panels of women sewing and spinning cast in bronze for a fireplace, and four bronze trotting horses with their leg positions correct according to Eadweard Muybridge's photographic studies of animal movement.

Eakins also designed his own frames for some of his portraits, incising symbols and words into the wood that related to the sitter's professions and interests.

A magnificent book, "Eakins," illustrated by more than 250 of the artist's works, has been published on the occasion of this exhibition (Yale University Press, 488 pages, $65).

Trending Stories