PRINT September 2001


Thomas Eakins

The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Thomas Eakins: American Realist,” which opens in October, will in many ways be a traditional survey of an acknowledged master. Even so, it promises to redefine its protagonist in accordance with contemporary concerns.

In his latest permutation, Eakins is nothing less than a pioneer of modern information technology. The exhibition, which is built around 68 Eakins oil paintings and 128 photographs by the artist or his students (culled from various public and private collections as well as the PMA’s own impressive holdings), will present an artist who achieved his distinction as America’s greatest realist by relying more heavily than previously suspected on the one-to-one transfer of photography to painting.

Eakins, the show will reveal, projected his photographs in varying combinations onto the prepared canvas by means of a magic lantern. He traced their images with a pencil and then used a needle to incise tick marks so minute as to have escaped detection until very recently. It was a working method that he spent years perfecting—and also keeping secret. In his era, such whole-sale reliance on mechanical means of reproduction would have been thought prosaic and commercial, and a painter known to depend on it as extensively as he did would have been scorned as unskilled and creatively impotent. Whereas today, with our fetish for sophisticated information-transmitting technologies and glorification of those who invent and deploy them, Eakins looks like a prophet of our own brave new world.

This unveiling of an updated version of Eakins in the first comprehensive show devoted to his art in nearly two decades is hardly surprising. Major artists are reinvented every time their oeuvre is gathered together and viewed afresh, and Eakins is no exception. When his work was first given a retrospective exhibition in 1917, the year after his death, it struck Progressive Era viewers as a forceful criticism of the Gilded Age. They appreciated Eakins for his obstinate refusal to conform to the strictures of the genteel tradition against which they, too, were in rebellion.

Not only the man himself but tight-lipped late portraits such as A.W. Lee, 1905, would have resonated with readers of Randolph Bourne’s scathing 1917 essay “The Puritan’s Will to Power,” which, in the spirit of the new radicalism, berated puritanical guilt, sexual repression, and pragmatically motivated self-renunciation. The painter’s austere images of middle-class isolation, anxiety, possibly even despair, such as The Thinker, 1900, Edith Mahon, 1904, and Susan Macdowell Eakins, ca. 1899, suddenly made sense when seen in the context of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918), and Booth Tarkington’s Magnificent Ambersons (1918).

The rediscovery of Eakins roughly coincided with the Melville revival of the 1920s. Henry McBride, art critic for the small but influential literary magazine The Dial, drew an explicit connection between the two figures and predicted that now that the long-obscured novelist had finally come into posthumous acclaim, the same would happen to the painter. Lewis Mumford praised Eakins’s “hearty contempt for the hierarchies of caste and office” and compared his mature work to Thorstein Veblen’s caustic masterpiece of social demystification, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899).

McBride’s prediction of forthcoming public acclaim for the painter was borne out, but only in part. The Eakins who at last became famous in the ’30s was no Melville or Veblen; he was not seen as a mordant critic of American pretentiousness and greed but rather as a celebrant of American virtue. Perhaps the stock market crash saw to that, for during the Depression the American public at large, recoiling from over-rapid modernization at home and political turmoil abroad, wanted desperately to feel good about itself and its ancestry. In 1930 the Museum of Modern Art, taking a step back from the avant-garde precipice, mounted an exhibition of works by three turn-of-the-century masters, Homer, Ryder, and Eakins, all of whom were praised for being uniquely American (their European antecedents—and, in Eakins’s case, training—notwithstanding). Eakins was now regarded as the forerunner of the Regionalists and other painters of “the American scene,” a microscopically observant local colorist who had chronicled America’s good old days when they were still the living present.

When the Philadelphia Museum mounted a vast Eakins retrospective for his centennial year, 1944, a heading in Life proclaimed, “Philadelphians who snubbed him now honor him as an American Old Master.” Newsweek, alluding to a story about the artist’s gruff manner and preference for working-class apparel, titled its piece on the Philadelphia exhibition, “Outlaw in an Undershirt.” Thus, at the peak of World War II and befitting the populist rhetoric of the times, good old Tom Eakins was figured as a regular guy, an ordinary Joe, a man’s man, who pictured his world in a muscular, no-frills, no-nonsense sort of way. Life’s spread on the exhibition—including ten color reproductions of paintings depicting various peacetime activities such as rowing, boxing, fishing, and joy-riding in a horse-drawn carriage—was followed by a photo essay singing the praises of American war production (“oil, steel, guns, bombs, tanks, planes, locomotives,” the captions thundered). In this context, Eakins stood as a truthful recorder of the venerable American way of life that the war effort was meant to defend and as an exemplar of precisely the tough-minded, roll-up-your-shirt-sleeves diligence that the war effort required.

In the postwar era, viewers looking for a credible alternative to modernist hegemony championed Eakins as a scientific positivist unflinchingly dedicated to the exploration of his world. Here was a representational artist whose seriousness of purpose, command of the medium, and heroic suffering matched that of the contemporary abstractionists. John Canaday, the conservative New York Times art critic, sniped, “Eakins was twice the rebel that most of the contemporary stable is, and ten times as original as the noisiest of them.” Fairfield Porter, a more temperate observer and himself a skilled representational painter, hastened to show that Eakins’s realism was never purely literal or photographic but rather a sophisticated and deliberate construct of elements. Clement Greenberg, meanwhile, downplayed Eakins’s realism (“Naturalism does not altogether explain the art of Thomas Eakins,” he started off a review) and portrayed him instead as a careful investigator of visual form dedicated to the materiality of his medium.

The most recent Eakins retrospective appeared in 1982 and was also organized by the PMA’s curator of American art, Darrel Sewell, whose museum has by far the largest collection of Eakins paintings, drawings, and photographs. Although the ’82 show did not in itself revise accepted notions about the artist, it took place just as Eakins revisionism was beginning to emerge in scholarly circles. The revisionists concentrated their attention on social, psychological, and identity issues raised by his life and art. In 1983, for example, Elizabeth Johns approached his work through the lens of social history; two years later I examined The Agnew Clinic, 1889, through the optic of poststructuralist film theory; in 1987 Michael Fried submitted The Gross Clinic, 1875, to a Freudian reading cast in the terms of the new historicism. Feminists and social activists such as Judith Fetterly, Bridget Goodbody, and Patricia Hills raised questions about misogyny in his art; later, Martin Berger, Whitney Davis, Jennifer Doyle, Randall Griffin, and Michael Hatt considered issues of masculinity, sexuality, homoeroticism, representation, and race. Current scholarship on Eakins, including various dissertations in progress, ponders his work’s relationship to nineteenth-century ethnography, religion, and nationalism.

The new show and its otherwise first-rate research catalogue will sidestep this brand of scholarship and its social and theoretical concerns. The installation will be divided into decade-by-decade segments, placing Eakins’s finished paintings directly across the room from the photos that he used to make them. This setup will work effectively as a metaphor for photographic projection itself, in which a small-scale original (a magic lantern slide or a strip of film) reappears blown-up to monumental size on an opposite flat surface.

But this arrangement, by focusing on technique, may inadvertently draw attention away from the broader historical contexts that formed Eakins and his art. Moreover, by laying out his career in strict chronological fashion rather than dialectically juxtaposing images from different periods to explore recurring themes and subjects, the exhibition must necessarily adhere to a linear narrative of artistic progress. It will thus forgo an excellent opportunity to indicate how much Eakins’s art may have been driven by the sexual, psychological, and social-status obsessions pointed to by the new scholarship. Surely these preoccupations were as powerful a determining force as the photographic and technological fixations that the show documents.

“Thomas Eakins: American Realist” hopes to reconstruct the painter as a special-effects wizard who cleverly and covertly manipulated optical information from one medium to another. Befitting the new millennium, he will be proudly unveiled as a harbinger of the modern information age. This is a fascinating new spin on one of the nation’s preeminent artists. Indeed, as we have seen, each successive generation has recreated the painter in its own image, and we, too, must claim him as our own. But will the technologically innovative Eakins whom the PMA puts on view ultimately seem as relevant and contemporary as an Eakins whose art is riddled with many of the same social, sexual, and racial tensions that trouble us today?

David M. Lubin is the Charlotte C. Weber Professor of Art at Wake Forest University.

“Thomas Eakins: American Realist” will be on view Oct. 4, 2001–Jan. 6, 2002, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the exhibition travels to the Museé d’Orsay, Paris, Feb. 5–May 12, 2002, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, June 18–Sept. 15, 2002.