OUR WEIRD UNCLE EAKINS
WHAT MUST THE GREATEST NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN PAINTER HAVE FELT—SITTING ALONE IN HIS FATHER’S HOUSE, DRINKING MILK—WHEN THE MODERNIST REVOLUTION ARRIVED?
Did the painter Thomas Eakins—regarded by many as the greatest American artist of the nineteenth century—drink too much milk? The inquiring mind of art historian Henry Adams, author of the controversial biography Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist, wants to know. And that is the least of his inquiries. As one concerned reviewer put it: “Adams accuses Eakins of, to list some charges alphabetically, anti-Semitism, bestiality, exhibitionism, incest, lying, poor writing skills, sadism, sexism, sodomy, peeping-Tomism and unattractiveness. Oh yes, and he was shifty-eyed, became overweight in old age and didn’t speak French as well as he let on.”
It’s not too surprising that, in the midst of the debate surrounding this biography last spring, hardly anybody paid attention when a drawing manual by Eakins himself was published, for the first time, 120 years after he wrote it. A book about how to take pains drawing is going to lose out every time, press coverage–wise and otherwise, to a book about a man who took down his pants. Eakins worked on the manual while teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, but after he was famously forced to resign in 1886—for removing the loincloth of a nude male model in a class that included female students, apparently to show the origin of a muscle—he abandoned plans to publish it. (The text and illustrations got separated after his death and were later given to two different institutions, the Pennsylvania Academy and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which have now brought them back together.)
At first glance, A Drawing Manual might appear merely to underscore the ideas we already have about Eakins: that he was an uncompromising realist, an artist who believed utterly in the accurate portrayal of the world around him, an engineer of sorts who didn’t give a jot about, or rather abhorred, what he called “picture making” of the pretty, romantic, idealized sort. People love Eakins’s light-filled paintings of rowers on the Schuylkill river, his sailing and shooting pictures, his penetrating humanist portraits, his baseball players and his worthy citizens.2 And if they do not love The Gross Clinic, Eakins’s explicit portrayal of the progress and reality of science, they generally respect and admire it.
But some of these Eakins appreciators (and yes, I include myself) have perhaps also secretly wished he wasn’t America’s greatest nineteenth-century painter. Look at what all those Europeans were doing at the same time! Breaking with tradition. Breaking down the elements of the representational image. Paying attention to and even pointing out the two-dimensional plane of the canvas rather than creating false, frozen illusions of three-dimensional space. After all, Eakins, who died in 1916, lived and painted from the time of Manet right through to the time of Duchamp. While these artists were challenging notions of how to portray reality in art and even what counted as art, Eakins, we assumed, ignored these questions, churning out, with slow scientific exactness, his rowers and his doctors and his concert singers.
Or did he? Instead of dismissing Eakins’s drawing manual on the one hand because we assume it doesn’t tell us anything new, and dismissing Adams’s biography on the other because it appears to tell us too much, maybe it’s worth taking a closer look at both.
- George Fetherling, writing in the Vancouver Sun, June 4, 2005. [RETURN]
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