PRINT December 1970

Thomas Eakins and the Power of Seeing

RECENT CRITICAL OPINION ABOUT Eakins is surprisingly unanimous. The extremes of the critical spectrum agree on his status as a master and on the broader characterization of his achievement. The heroic ordinariness, the celebration of the “world of fact,” are familiar enough themes in the Eakins literature. Such agreement tacitly recognizes that Eakins is the most accessible 19th- century American painter to present sensibilities. We need make fewer “allowances” for Eakins than we do for either Homer or Ryder. The sheer hard-headedness of the work with its granitic images of scientific materialism reflects a 19th-century taste congenial to our own. Eakins bears down hard on his subjects in a way few of his contemporaries match. Yet the Goyaesque is far from Eakins. He is both the painter of and within his culture. Like the great 19th-century novelists whom he so strikingly parallels, Eakins appears as a shaping agent within it, never simply its servant. Ironically and obtusely, the surrounding culture served Eakins. It withheld a conventional portrait practice from him almost to the end so that in one sense Eakins’ portraits come with the authenticity of the personal and unbidden predilection of the artist. It would be foolish to make to much of this. Both The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic are commissioned works and both are central pieces in the oeuvre. There is no diminution of force in the commissioned portraits. Nonetheless, Eakins’ central interest in character as a subject, not just a by-product of portraiture, links him with the major 19th-century novelists as a truly representative figure for his age. And that, after all, is a much rarer quality in art than we might suppose. We simply no longer expect a major painter to fix for us the central stress of his culture.

Eakins quite definitely does. His energetic response to his age defines much of his originality as a 19th-century painter and part of his force today. Part but not all. The more distinctively Eakins emerges as the truly representative figure of the late 19th century, the less he is bound by it. We do not, or should not after the Whitney retrospective, think of Eakins as a specifically 19th-century figure any more than we think of Rembrandt or Velasquez as specifically 17th-century figures. However much Eakins’ relationship to 19th-century science, art and literature illuminates aspects of his work, they do not tell us the full story of his power.

Likewise Eakins cannot be explained away by the renewed interest in various modes of neoacademic figuration. If anything, Eakins’ retrospective points up the self-consciousness of such work. Negatively, it does show that if recent figuration looks back to any 19th-century American painter, it would be Eakins rather than Ryder or Homer. But for all this, the power of Eakins in 1970 stems neither from his originality as a 19th-century painter nor from a newfound, modish “relevance.” What does generate that power and how are we to account for it adequately?

The story of Eakins’ academic training in Paris in the sixties and his admiration for such academic masters as Bonnat, Couture and Gérôme is so familiar that it scarcely requires recapitulation. Lloyd Goodrich has pointed out how Eakins’ admiration later extended to Degas and Manet. The cut-off conductor’s hand and baton in The Concert Singer, 1892 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) provide some evidence for this. Eakins’ acceptance of the academic masters of the late 19th century and cautious interest in Impressionist motifs should not obscure, however, a more central relationship he has with advanced painting of the ’70s and ’80s: his overriding concern with truth to perception as the basis of painting. Amidst all the multitudinous transformations in late 19th-century painting, none is more fundamental and more pregnant than the idea that perception and perception alone is the experience that promotes and sanctions art. “I see therefore I paint.”

Put as baldly as that, it explains nothing. The ways of seeing proved exceptionally diverse. Eakins’ subscription to the notion differs markedly from European responses: For European painting the more literal aspects of the “I see therefore I paint” formulation were quickly disposed of and became no more than the starting point of orthodoxy. The real question that developed out of it was how to organize the decorative surface and still maintain the thrust of the original experience in nature. Not so for Eakins. What could be accepted and assimilated into orthodoxy at the center, remained stubbornly resistant at the margins. Eakins stuck with the question of what “seeing alone” meant for art. Such a choice occasioned Eakins’ “ordinary” or “neutral” style. He does not render perception into art: he preserves it. Style is perception for Eakins. Any sense of manner must substantiate the force of perception, the act of seeing itself. The absence of the decorative nuance coupled with his reliance on sculptural modeling is no mere whim of an austere late 19th-century taste: it generates the force and augments the meaning of his art.

Against the customary account of Eakins’, strength as his love of “facts,” evidenced in the paintings and his unabashed interest and skill in photography and scientific anatomy, we need to emphasize the mode whereby the “facts” were grasped. Eakins is no upgraded Peto or Harnett—they are the real fact grubbers of the 19th century. The vast difference in quality between them and Eakins is not altogether happily established on the “facts” argument. In their work one has little or no sense of how the facts are grasped. That they are grasped and produced as it were out of nothing (or rather out of the known flatness of the picture plane) constitutes the entertainment of trompe l’oeil painting. Part of the fun is that we are so unaware of Peto’s or Harnett’s hand. With Eakins we are always aware of his presence within the painting. So often the force of Eakins’ intelligence rather than that of the sitter holds our attention. The fundamental force of the work is the power of Eakins’ seeing. His art turns on the dramatization of seeing. The finest work is as much about seeing as it is about the seen object, sitter or world. How does Eakins register the power of seeing with us?

The most immediate (and the most lasting) effect of seeing a substantial group of Eakins’ work is the constancy of light and shadow as the prime means of painting. Rightly it has been widely discussed, never more penetratingly than by Clement Greenberg, although the conclusion she draws are rather different than the ones forwarded here. Eakins’ use of light and dark measures so much of his quality—he could use the means of academic painting with such intensity that he transformed the means themselves. The comparison of Eakins with one of his academic contemporaries, say, Gérôme, readily demonstrates the gap between conventional means used for conventional ends and conventional means transformed into strikingly personal ones. Eakins’ constant and exclusive devotion to light and dark should occasion more than formal acknowledgment.

As so often happens in art since Courbet, Eakins gives quasi-allegorical expression to formal qualities that later cease to require explicit demonstration and become implicit working principles. It is as though the painter has to use earlier conventions to inaugurate new ones, painting the latter out both to exorcise the past and specify the present’s problems. Many examples come to mind: Courbet’s L’Atelier, Manet’s Déjeuner, or Old Musician, Matisse’s Joie de Vivre or Picasso’s Demoiselles. In one way or another each declares a manifesto, altering the painter’s relationship to the past and prophesying a program based on that altered relationship. The Gross Clinic strikes me as belonging to such a group of works, if obviously of less historical moment and effect. Its basic subject has substantial precedence in the past and the fleeting recall of Rembrandt’s Anatomy of Dr. Tulp is surely no accident. The studied, pyramidal composition equally recalls classical precedence. Furthermore the identification of the hero at the apex of the pyramid invests the painting with an hierarchical solemnity that the present seems to seek a living relationship with the past. This much is readily discernible: Courbet’s allégorie réele pronounced with a striking American accent. But the painting draws its power from more than a generalized allusion to the past. The extraordinary and unforgettable highlight on Dr. Gross’s forehead is both our entry point into the painting and locks the work together. It is the moment of the work, setting off the head as the dominating motif. His intelligence commands all else. It is, of course, the moment where the light falls most directly. Dr. Gross stands closest to the overhead source of light. In the darkness it seeks out and elaborates the significance of the scene. Not only does it strike the domed forehead, characterizing him as much through that as through the troubled gravity of his facial expression, it illuminates the still shocking image of the bloodied fingers holding the scalpel. Blood and science: the fall of light proposes the metaphor, present both in the composition of the whole and embodied in the central figure. If we trace the role light plays, the work surrenders a rich complexity. Besides Dr. Gross or, more accurately, competing with him for our attention is the operation itself. Here the opening of the thigh, the point of the operation, receives the fullest illumination with a plane of white extending along the top perimeter of the thigh. But we are brought back to Gross and are then compelled to gravitate between these competing sources of interest. Eakins, in a masterly stroke of realist insinuation, puts us into a similar, echoing position to the watching students. What precisely is going on in the operation is obscured from us as it is to the rather listless students. Like them we must await whatever commentary Dr. Gross supplies on the action. Thus both the man and the operation are seen as separate and distinct. We must gauge the man for himself alone.

One other pair of complementaries in the painting is worth a closer look. The crouching, half-length figure wedged in the right-hand corner is strangely well lit for a “supporting figure.” By keeping the figure in strict profile, Eakins carefully prevents intrusion upon the principal. Although this crouching figure is engaged, indeed strains to assist, in the operation, the upward direction of the glance which is also the cause of his illumination is to Gross himself or rather, to be crucially accurate, to the bloodied hand holding the scalpel. Eakins sustains the line of the glance unimpeded as it passes across the operation to the surgeon, the man of science himself. It is an act of secularized obeisance and belief. Answering this illuminated figure, Eakins sets the shadowy, seated woman at the left who hides her face in her sleeve. The single woman of the piece, she gestures as no other figure does and the gesture is clearly one of horrified rejection, even fear, for the clenching, claw-like hand that the light reveals is remarkably vivid. The motif gains its force not from the identity of the figure but from the action of the light catching the tensed, extended knuckles. Here again she answers the tensed, extended right arm of the crouching student at the right. Faith and doubt, affirmation and negation are injected into this seemingly “occasional” commission.

Two conclusions can be drawn from these observations, one specific and one general. Specifically, the painting is no simplistic 19th-century propaganda piece for the mighty works of science. The operation itself is not the central motif: the man of science is. Yet the heroic proportions of Dr. Gross are qualified. The blood on his fingers mitigates his otherwise heroic isolation and returns him to engagement in the real world next to him. Finally, it is very much the man of science who is invoked with Dr. Gross’s force sharply contrasted to the cringing woman on the left. Wholly without facile optimism or misplaced heroics, the painting achieves something far more original: a statement of the new character required by science, a character charged with a new feeling and a new sense of reality. To the question of character in Eakins’ work generally, I shall return later. Now for the second conclusion to be drawn from The Gross Clinic.

We have observed how Eakins uses light to plot his allegory. It is the agent of revelation; it both displays the action and reveals the significant relationships and complements—quite literally “bringing to light” the full meaning of this apparently ordinary scene. Such a mode is neither singular to Eakins nor necessarily admirable in itself—indeed it treads the margins of melodrama. What sustains Eakins’ conviction and authenticity is the active probing intelligence that so rigorously enforces the direction of light. Max Kozloff speaks of how “Eakins generates an exasperated energy into the act of seeing” and he is surely right in his detection of the energy Eakins puts into the ordinary act of seeing. The fall of light, the striking revelations it makes, is the agent of that seeing; it registers the energy and intelligence of Eakins’ seeing as no other element can. The Gross Clinic dramatizes as much how Eakins perceives as what is perceived, and in no small way it contributes to the distinctiveness of the realism he evolved. It is obviously inadequate to describe it as scientific naturalism no matter how much play one makes of Eakins’ scientific interests. They do not account for the singular intensity with which the crucial moments—the bloodied fingers of Dr. Gross, his domed forehead, the cringing woman and the partially illuminated student’s upward glance—are seen. Each perception is valued separately and distinctively. Hence the absence of generalized sources of light. Eakins equates light with the act of seeing and he sees particular moments whose significance derives specifically from their particularity. Thus we do not have, as in more conventional painting, the play of light and dark but their opposition. Certain moments are wrested from darkness and these must be seen as crucial and isolated from the generality of the scene. The limitations of this mode are as pertinent as their more positive characteristics. For at once Eakins admits of his partial vision as an artist; steady, intense and moving, to be sure, but nevertheless consciously limited and partial. The area of the paintable is limited strictly to that which is seen as significant. Sight verifies and authenticates all else.

Such a view deliberately cuts across the visionary painting alluded to by Homer and confronted directly by Ryder. Although it makes for the occasional pedestrianism, it also slows us down and limits our expectations. Above all it makes for an art of concentration. Everything narrows towards the power of seeing and seeing alone. Truth to his perception rather than truth to nature separates him from more conventional art, for nature is powerfully rearranged in Eakins’ use of light and dark. Their deployment becomes the prerogative of his seeing. Comparing the photographs with the paintings shows how much Eakins “corrects” the casualness of the photographs. The exclusiveness of Eakins’ dependence on seeing and its concomitant refusal to expatiate forth into “vision” has a major effect on the portraits.

In one way Eakins’ portraiture secures him most firmly to his century. Not for reasons of subject matter or style but because he shares the 19th century’s interest in character so profoundly. Character in Eakins is made an explicit theme of art. Here the parallels with literature are illuminating. One of the most central attributes of 19th-century fiction is its new conception of fictional character. Replacing the picaresque hero to whom events befall and who is formed through the fortunate and unfortunate actions of the world, the prototypical 19th-century novel—Bleak House, Anna Karenina or Moby Dick—displays character as the shaping agent of the world around him or her. Accordingly the world surrounding character is less abstracted. Society in Dickens is the sum of other characters impinging on the central character or characters. It is not so much the story of an emergent “individualism” as a sense of the “otherness” of individual character. This newfound “otherness” in 19th-century character—Anna Karenina springs to mind as the most obvious example—is surely quite different from the knowingness of the narrator and our capacity to know the hero in prototypical 19th-century fiction—Tom Jones would be the most developed example of this. For our purposes it is tempting to distinguish between seeing and knowing character but the distinction is less than plausible. The omniscience of the narrator in 19th-century fiction remains, but in disguised forms. Moreover Eakins’ portraits are emphatically not fictional characters but belong to the solid world of fact. Nevertheless, Eakins’ sense of character, or rather what it means to paint character, is the crucial and distinguishing quality of his portraiture. We have it from as authoritative a source as Lloyd Goodrich: “As a portraitist, Eakins was concerned above all with character. The basic form of the head, its bone structure, the unique personality of the features, the character shown in hands, the shape of the body beneath the clothes—all the factors that made the sitter an individual like no one else in the world—he grasped with unerring sureness.” This assurance does permit us to draw the parallel between Eakins’ portraits and the 19th-century fictional character in their common view of the “otherness” of character per se. The peculiar detachment of his portraits of Roman Catholic clergy are revealing of the latter tendency where the redoubtable characterization of the heads disputes the role determined by the regalia. One wonders whether the ironic contrast between plain men in fine gear, the actual presence of the sitter versus the ceremonial quality of the dress, is merely an accident of taste. But to say that character is individual rather than collective is hardly to say very much. We must see how Eakins narrowed such a commonplace view into a far more original conception of character in portraiture.

Recent critics of fiction, notably John Bayley and W. J. Harvey, have directed our attention again to some of the basic elements in the creation of character which the New Criticism has either obscured or glossed over. Harvey describes with admirable clarity the way we come to know character at all:

. . . when we experience another person we do so within a context which is inseparable from the experience itself. We can never know another in himself since in the very act of knowing our presence creates the context on which knowledge depends. The data by which we describe character are the aggregate of our experience in a number of situations, relationships, contexts. Without these contexts the characters of others do not make sense for us. We can have what may be called intrinsic knowledge of ourselves; we can only have contextual knowledge of others. (Character and the Novel, Cornell University Press, 1965, p. 31)

Harvey goes on to point out that the novel reveals both intrinsic and contextual knowledge of character. The novelist enjoys a God-like relationship to his fictional characters that he does not have to other human beings around him. I quote Harvey’s description to reiterate how emphatically non-fictional Eakins’ sense of character is, and in doing so, stress how true to actual human experience it is. For the most extraordinary quality of Eakins’ portraits is that for all their sharpness and individuality, they remain distant and aloof. Intimacy is constantly denied. They retain their otherness with no suggestion of intrinsic knowledge on Eakins’ part, let alone conferring such powers on the viewer. Although at times the accessories of a portrait supply a context of a kind, as in the portrait of Mrs. Frishmuth, they define a social function or capacity rather than character itself which in the case of Mrs. Frishmuth remains intractably implacable. What we are left with in Eakins’ portraiture is the presentation of character and a corresponding refusal to characterize his sitters through gesture, accessories, context or whatever. It is a stubborn refusal to surrender fact for fiction and therein lies part of his originality as a portraitist. Eakins’ refusal to indulge his sitters is a cliché of the literature but the real refusal is more profound: he refuses to indulge his own imagination and adheres steadfastly to what he sees.

At this juncture it might be revealing to take some comparisons made between Eakins’ portraiture and earlier portraiture and submit them to a more critical scrutiny. Rembrandt and Velasquez are most frequently cited as his models in this direction. Yet any similarity seems to be based on the most superficial aspects of all three. For both Rembrandt and Velasquez gain some of their imaginative purchase in their portraits from the suggestion of an intrinsic knowledge on the painter’s part and their capacity to infer as much to the viewer. In Rembrandt the sense of a known and revealed inner life in his greatest portraits—especially noticeable in some of the portraits of Titus—cannot be easily dismissed as merely one of the many sentimentalities of Rembrandt critics. Although it calls for delicacy, we are invited to know the character, the quality of its temperament by Rembrandt in a manner totally alien to the invitation of Eakins’ portraits. The larger scope of the older master should not surprise us for a moment. Eakins necessarily must limit and concentrate his powers in order to produce major art. More decisively than the inference of intrinsic knowledge in Rembrandt’s portraits, both he and Velasquez empower individual character with a representative force. The persona of the portraits embrace larger states of being and embody forces beyond that of a single human experience. Character becomes a metaphor. Eakins’ portraiture neither attempts nor rises to such a pitch. The pithiness of his figures depends on maintaining the exact reverse: never allowing his sitters to become persona or representative figures but to remain irrevocably singular. How does Eakins accomplish this? What does it tell us about character in painting?

Here we return to the power of seeing as the clue to Eakins’ achievement. No less than his subject paintings, the portraits work consistently through their opposition of light and shade. It is not simply a matter of the painting as a whole being conceived in light and shade: the sitter, his or her self, are conceived in light and shade. The sudden shafts of shadow that can divide a face so astonishingly as in the portrait of The Very Reverend James P. Turner temper and qualify the illumination which carries the character to us most directly. So much so that the qualification becomes as insistent a part of the conception as the declaration of character. In some of the best portraits of women such as Maud Cook or Miss Amelia C. Van Buren it becomes a strategy of partial realization. The sitter is as much withheld as revealed. The portrait of Maud Cook is particularly distinguished for the rapidity with which light and dark alternate across the face. The inconsistency of the illumination, its uncertainty in the presence of its lustrous shadows, achieves a striking ambiguity for the sitter in which judgments about character and mood become impossible to assume. Such ambiguity in portraiture is by no means confined to Eakins but it engenders a tension that is his alone. For the employment of the same light and dark models his sitters with a sculptural explicitness that disputes such an ambiguity of feeling. If Eakins’ portraiture is a consistent attempt to put down character as fully as possible, he qualifies his venture by sticking to what is strictly seeable. The high forehead of The Very Reverend James P. Turner, its sculptural boniness affirmed over and against the fleshy “give” of the lower part of the face, or the sharply faceted nose of A. W. Lee, these belong to the area of the perceivable and they receive the full intensity of Eakins’ scrutiny. The power of seeing can incorporate them successfully. What they reveal of character is harder to say for that lies beyond the area of the seeable, both for Eakins and for us. The final irony (and quality) of Eakins’ portraiture is that such rigor, in sticking to the facts of perception, far from giving rise to a hard-boiled view of character with feeling disciplined off the canvas, achieves the opposite. Feeling is intense because it remains potential rather than imminent. Explicit presence gives rise to implicit feeling. It is a triumph of impersonality, Jamesian rather than Dickensian in its elusiveness.

The late portrait of his wife in the Hirshhorn Collection with its peculiarly direct but abstracted gaze is one of the supreme products of this impersonality. Although Mrs. Eakins looks out and at the world, she does not appear to be seeing whatever her gaze rests upon, presumably the painter himself. She is removed from intimacy. Eakins’ perception of this remove (the power of his seeing) establishes the poignancy of the painting. Of all the portraits on view at the Whitney this comes closest to establishing a “fictional” context. We are aware in the meeting of gazes of a relationship between artist and wife but not even that can make feeling explicit. Character remains intractably “other.” All that Eakins can do is to reveal her intense distraction, the nearness of her presence and the removal of her self. Seeing is feeling and the poignancy of such feeling is that it is inexplicit and inexplicable in its operation.

What can we conclude from all this about Eakins’ view of character? So far we have noted Eakins’ strict adherence to the facts of experience. The way he apprehends character is determinedly non-fictional. Trusting to the power of seeing alone, he all but excludes gesture and carefully retains neutrality in facial expression. Yet such “neutrality” does not for a moment mean the absence of feeling. If all this means a refusal to indulge in the visionary, it doesn’t mean a senseless, hard-nosed distrust of the imagination. The lack of pretension in the manner is amazing and makes plausible accounts of Eakins’ neutral style. But neutral is an unfortunate word with its suggestion of an absence of style which is clearly not the case. We recognize Eakins as Eakins and there is no confusing his “neutrality” with that of, say, George Richmond’s emptily academic manner. If neutral will not suffice, plain style will, I think, for it accommodates both the manner and the matter. The whole venture of Eakins’ portraiture is neither to interpret nor to explain character but to make character plain to us, to make it plainly visible. That constitutes the remarkableness of his achievement. Without myth, without fiction, without the sense of a larger significance endowing his immediate experience with intensity and meaning, Eakins achieves what only the greatest 19th-century novelists could achieve: to hold to character for itself and to hold us to it.

Patrick McCaughey