Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) is recognized as one of America’s foremost painters, thanks in large part to well-known realist images like The Gross Clinic. Yet evidence suggests that he considered his historical paintings among his most important—and perhaps best—works. In the new book “Thomas Eakins and the Uses of History” (University of Pennsylvania Press), Akela Reason explores Eakins’s lifelong fascination with historical themes, arguing that the artist chose historical subjects to express his most deeply held professional aspirations, which included measuring himself against master artists of the distant past.
Recently I reached out to Reason, who teaches art history at Georgia State University, to explore the themes in her book, as well as the relative lack of success Eakins experienced while he was alive.
Did Eakins experience critical and financial success during his lifetime, and if not, why?
Eakins attained a degree of critical success in the final decades of his life but was never really able to live off of the sale of his work. Eakins tended not to paint the sort of pictures that were coveted by contemporary collectors at the time. His genre pictures of rowers and wrestlers seemed eccentric to his peers. In his portraits he often failed to flatter his sitters, which led to relatively few commissions. Although critics could see the merit of his work, few collectors wanted to live with Eakins’s pictures.
Considering how well-known The Gross Clinic is, isn’t it ironic that it wasn’t commissioned and was purchased for a mere $200? And that the painting he regarded as his best, Crucifixion, never sold?
Yes, though I do believe that The Gross Clinic was equally important to him. However, even with its graphic representation of surgery, on a basic level The Gross Clinic remains a portrait, while the Crucifixion posed greater challenges as a subject. How does a realist paint Jesus without offending someone? Eakins painted Jesus without a halo or any of the traditional features that marked Him as a divine figure. Eakins’s Jesus is a man. In essence, Eakins created a modern crucifixion for a doubting age. He could not have expected any private collector to purchase the picture. Nor could he have hoped that any church would have an interest in this newly envisioned Jesus. I believe that he painted it to sell to a museum, but that didn’t happen during his lifetime.
In the book you write that “Eakins crafted his backward-looking historical works with an eye towards the future.” What do you mean by that?
After studying in Europe in the 1860s, Eakins came back to America with a clear understanding that art history spanned many centuries and that if Americans wanted to be part of this history that they needed to stop worrying about fashion and think about posterity. I think that Eakins consciously sought Old Master status or at least aspired to it. Historical subjects—images based on the classical tradition, the Crucifixion, and the commemorative sculptures he did for public monuments—were all part of this quest.
You also note that “becoming a ‘big painter’ meant something different to Eakins than attaining financial success with his work.”
Because Eakins had the unwavering support of his father he never had to worry about selling pictures. That was a fairly unusual position for a nineteenth-century American artist to be in. Therefore, Eakins focused on producing what he called “big painting.” He wanted to create works that would endure beyond his own time.
How do art historians typically define Eakins’s art?
Eakins is typically viewed as a realist, which he was, but this has led to some of his paintings receiving more scholarly attention than others. For example, Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, or The Champion Single Sculls, is widely-studied today, but he exhibited the picture only once. The painting simply did not figure in his career during the nineteenth-century. Swimming is another instance of this—a work that only a few of his contemporaries would have known. Given how much weight scholars have given these works it seems incongruous that Eakins became better known during his lifetime for his colonial revival genre pictures of life in early America than for either of these canonical paintings.
How do you see Eakins’s art differently?
I think Eakins wanted to use historical images like the colonial revival pictures to build an enduring reputation. It’s not that I find Swimming unimportant but I wanted to restore some of the works that he exhibited more frequently to their rightful place. Eakins counted his historical images among his most important works. He hoped to become an American Old Master with these pictures.
You also write that Swimming, more than any of his works represented failure. Why?
Eakins had big hopes for Swimming. It demonstrated his knowledge of a specific French theory about painting that I believe he wanted to introduce into the curriculum at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he taught in the 1870s and ’80s. However, this program relied on the use of nude models taken outdoors and that wouldn’t have gone over well with the school’s administration. Eakins also complicated matters by using students as models, which the school prohibited. Eakins painted Swimming for a member of the administration who ultimately rejected the work. Had he accepted the picture, I think Eakins would have felt that he had the approval to proceed with revising the curriculum at the Academy. Instead, he lost his job in 1886, a few months after he exhibited it.
How did Eakins envision his legacy and has his vision been realized?
It’s a mixed bag. Eakins would be very pleased to know that we consider him one of the greatest American artists. But I think he would be puzzled to learn that Max Schmitt is better known than his Crucifixion.