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Thomas Eakins, who died on this day in 1916, is regarded as one of the most influential painters in American art history. This is the kind of observation that we tend to toss around pretty liberally but in Eakins’ case it’s entirely appropriate and maybe even a bit of an understatement. In fact, it would be hard to trace the development of American Realism without discussing Eakins and his work near the beginning.

As a painter, Eakins was among the first to incorporate realism into the genre of portraiture, producing a number of paintings of people being themselves, what photographers typically call environmental portraits. While he also excelled in formal portraiture, cranking out moody and introspective pictures of Philadelphia luminaries, his paintings of people at work or at play probably represent his greatest contribution to American Art. He chose to paint America at its very core, unadorned and unsanitized, as he saw the country growing around him.

His most famous image is The Gross Clinic, a portrait of Dr. Samuel P. Gross in a surgical setting with blood and everything. It was a scandalous image in 1875, condemned as vulgar and graphic. People hated it and he managed to sell it for only $200. In 2006, its prospective sale to Alice Walton and the Crystal Bridges Museum triggered a bidding war that ended up costing the people of Philadelphia (through a group of wealthy donors) a cool $68 million just to keep it in town. That’s the highest price ever paid for American Portraiture, by the way.

The Gross Clinic (Thomas Eakins, 1975)

A softer, simpler painting that exemplifies Eakins’ skill at capturing the quiet moments of life is Kathrin, which shows his future fiance playing with a kitten. The light is dull and dramatic and the pose isolates the subject from the viewer in a most unportraitlike fashion for the period.

Kathrin (Thomas Eakins, 1872)

For all his accomplishments as a painter, Eakins’ greatest contribution to American Art might just be as an educator. First as an instructor and then as the director of the Pennsylvania Academy, Eakins proved to be an innovative but controversial teacher and he was finally forced out after an unpleasant incident involving Eakins, a female student, and a moving, nude male pelvis. His commitment to realism, however, made a lasting impression on some of his students who in turn became educators themselves. His influence extended well into the 20th Century and his philosophy can be seen in the work of such American heavyweights as John Sloan and Edward Hopper.

By the time Eakins died in 1916, he was well past the peak of his career. Badly hurt, both personally and financially, by his dismissal from the academy, he made his living in portraiture but his portraits, sadly, were often too penetrating and revealing for the subject’s comfort. It is this stark realism, though, that carries Eakins’ portraits beyond mere human likeness and into another place that’s hard to reach; the human character.

At his best, his portraits were so good that one of them, Miss Amelia Van Buren,  was called by at least one historian “the finest of all American portraits.” Strangely enough, Miss Van Buren was the female student in question during the infamous pelvis incident that ended Eakins’ tenure with the Academy five years before the painting was completed. She became a respected photographer as a result of Eakins “unsavory” instruction and remained close to him for years afterward. She was, like me, a native Detroiter and we’re a pretty forgiving bunch.

Miss Amelia Van Buren (Thomas Eakins, 1891)

 

 

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