Thomas Eakins During the American Renaissance

Thomas Eakins, arguably America’s finest painter during the 19th century, cast his gaze around the vicinity that was Philadelphia and recorded his impressions in a wide swath of painted themes.  Whether he was doing commissioned portraits or investigating the human figure in athletic competition, Eakins strove to maintain a balance between the marks of Nature and opportunities to see with greater clarity thanks to advances in technology (i.e., the camera).  And yet, inexplicably, Eakins constantly had to battle criticism and disdain mercilessly directed toward him from the conservative powers of Philadelphia’s culture.  In an 1894 letter to Harrison Morris, Eakins lamented:  “My honours are misunderstanding, persecution, and neglect, enhanced because unsought.” As you look at/reflect on an early photograph of Eakins in his 30s and then at his self portrait completed shortly before his death, what are your thoughts on Eakins work and the vehement reaction directed toward him by a narrow-minded populace culturally contained/constrained in the past and resistant to the early manifestations of modernism?

Thomas Eakins, Self Portrait, ca 1902

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About roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.
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25 Responses to Thomas Eakins During the American Renaissance

  1. eric burwell says:

    I can why people of this time saw him with myopic view. Anyone who is ahead of their time shows and feels great deal of difference in ones life. As for Eakins he was just a visionary unlike many of the religious who do what right or wrong based on what their told, not on do what is right or wrong based on one thinks. Eakins was also into action work as well this was new but not shunt like the other idea of work he had. I guess in this part of the country at this time was just a undeveloped area in comparison to the rest of the world.

  2. RACRE says:

    In his portrait before his death you can tell the detailed work on his face came in handy with the photograph imagery with camera. I believe this helped him out greatly with mastering his techniques. Even though people where not use to this, he in fact created something that was going to change the art world today.

  3. racre says:

    At this time in American History the United States was still trying to create an identity. I believe that the people in Pennsylvania saw this type of artwork as being risque. Especially when it comes to art that is reflected in the view of people. The people of the new America was trying to seperate themselves from the ideas of the European people. I think that this type of art was developing in those other countries and the people were afraid that they would retort back to what they were escaping from. I am glad that he stayed with his visions and followed through with what he believed in.

  4. Jess C. says:

    Eakins was clearly a visionary for his time. Sadly people that are ahead of their time are not received well by society. What I dont understand is why it was such a big deal that nudes were being used for his art. It’s not like there has never been any nude figures in art ever. I guess American artists were not ready for that yet. In a society where people were so strong and set in their beliefs, there was no way that Eakins would have been able to bring people out of their comfort zones or change what was acceptable. The one thing I love about this is that eventually these visionary artist become some of the most respected artists in the world. Even though it may not occur during their lifetime, they usually end up getting the respect they deserve, which is better than nothing.

    • B. Mann says:

      It’s not that people werent ready for nudes. Up until this time there were few female artists and it was the fact that he allowed the female artist to paint an undraped male model. The presence of the nude male in front of female was what was unsavory, not nudes in general.

  5. B. Mann says:

    Thomas Eakins realized that what we see naturally and what a camera captures are sometimes very different. He tried to balance the accuracy and detail with what naturally comes to us. Probably because he didn’t wish to eliminate the need or want for art. These images of Eakins seem to reflect a man who is searching while somewhat lost. He is ahead of his time yet trapped amongst it. This saddened look on his face could be the realization that in his lifetime, society will not reach the point of his vision. He will not get the chance to be a part of a culture that understands his direction. Though he continued to pursue his style, perhaps he realized that he wouldn’t get the adequate recognition in his lifetime.

  6. Kristy Asato says:

    The debate over nudity in art has been raging for centuries. It still causes controversy. We have all heard the stories of censored works of art: altered statues, repainted figures, and curtained images. Clothes were even stitched onto nudes in tapestries. Allowing mixed classes in academic institutions also raised questions about the role of women in society… a segment that is still looking for equality. This was the Victorian Era, and the actions Eakins took were bound to attract attention and criticism. Eakins’ objective view of the human form was also too clinical for his Philadelphia. His quiet, contemplative and realistic scenes were not what the audience was expecting. They saw it as vulgar. Eakins’ crime was one of informality. He broke boundaries by allowing the sexes to have the same opportunities. The human form was treated with less heroic conventions and presented as realistically as possible. Even the subjects he chose to paint, monumentalizing leisure activities and portraits of common people, went against decorum. Despite all of this, he was able to develop a new language of frank psychological introspection.

  7. Thomas Eakins seemed to have struggled with the fact that he was so highly criticized because of his work with nude figures. People were more conservative back in the day and it is understandable that he shocked people with his studies of the nude figure; however, I admire his persistence and strong will to push boundaries and keep exploring the many shapes and forms of the human body.

  8. Caitlin M says:

    I think that Eakins work is genius and greatly influenced the art world. He did things that many artists never did and I think that bold attitude broke many boundaries for the future. During the nineteenth century in Philadelphia, of course the conservative culture was going to criticize Eakins for the things he did like studying nude models and inviting women to join. People were too narrow minded to see the beauty and the advantages of studying anatomy and bodies, especially to a painter who’s whole life focuses on portraying forms. The criticism may have been tough for Eakins but I think it’s similar to ripping a band aid off, the first of it is always the worse and I think his risk taking opened doors for modernism in the future. The numerous sketches and notes of his we saw in class are comparable to great masters of arts and theory like Leonardo da Vinci. He was a brilliant man and I admire his courage through all the negativity he had to ensure during his lifetime.

  9. Peter Fajardo says:

    I have a lot of respect for Eakins and his works. The influence of photography and his understanding of the camera can be seen on his superb art works. His portraits above really differ and both have a contrasting appeal. The black and white photograph shows a young visionary. He has a gaze of determination, a calculating aesthetic and vision. The other picture however reveals a different side of Eakins. There is a mild frustration and a sense of defeat in his face. It is unfortunate that people from his time did not fully embrace and share his artistic dispositions and the direction he was taking in the art world.

  10. Heather Roberts says:

    Thomas Eakins work opened doors for a lot of artists. Unfortunately, being one of the first to do so, he was not able in his lifetime to live in a world where his art was acceptable. Nudity is still to this day an issue with some people in 2011. Unfortunately- I think nudity will be an issue for some always depending on one’s beliefs. He was definitely a head of his time and saw where the potential of his art was going to lead, unlike most around him. The photo of him in his thirties looks like he is depressed, and disappointed. The painting of him later on in life he almost looks frustrated, both are beautifully done. If I had to base an opinion off of these two images I would say he lived a very depressing life. I don’t know what is worse, to be a genius living in a world where no one understands you, or to be stupid and not understand the world we live in. I’m sure that ran through his mind when people judged his works.

  11. Hwanhee Lee says:

    I think Thomas Eakins work was ahead of its time. A lot of his art work was overlooked and dismissed by people because they weren’t used to seeing something different. He was probably also overshadowed by most of his peers and other popular artists during his time. Observing the two images of Eakins, he doesn’t seem lost to me but it looks like he is aware that he is lost and can do nothing about it. His artistic style displays what he feels and to me, it seems as if he’s saying that every one of us should be free to do and express our emotions. Looking at the image before his death, he’s calm and ready for whatever it is to come.

  12. I bought my Kindle only 9 months ago. Why is Amazon not offering a trade infor the new Fire? says:

    Eakins’ self-portrait is so realistic it could be described as photographic. It shows that perfectionism in his character that drives him to attempt too much. He wanted to do everything as his best. I can see why he would insist on studying the nude human figure in a class on drawing since he had such an intense interest in human anatomy. Watching a real time operation without being set up to paint and photograph during that time would require him to have either a photographic memory or so thorough an understanding of the human anatomy that he could recall what he had seen. It indicates he had a split brain approach, his left and right side vying for dominance.

  13. Jennifer Frazell says:

    I think people were a little too conservative and reacted a little too negatively towards Eakins’ work. He was inventing new techniques and studying figures and objects to better capture his ideas. Why would this be so horrible? I believe some people are afraid of advancement and leaving their comfort zone, and this is why people were so dismissive of his work. The use of the camera, and the continuous study of anatomy is probably what made his work so great. This must have been very disappointing to Eakins that people were so resistant, and both the picture and painting of Eakins seem to portray this feeling.

  14. cuencaso says:

    It’s interesting to see the difference between the early photograph of him and the later photograph of him. It’s a very natural re-occurrence in human nature, that of insecurity, self-questioning, a natural early reaction to the scrutiny of people, and then a later, almost acceptance of yourself, or in this case of his own artwork. His work was great, otherwise it wouldn’t have received so much attention. Towards the end of his life, I think he realized that he created what he wanted and that it was beautiful and that what people thought about it was no longer as important as he thought it was, thus that sense of acceptance, not just of himself, but of the unaccepting public.

  15. Alec Carbonel says:

    I think that Eakins eyes gives us everything we need to know about what he was thinking just before he died. You can sense a deep emotional sadness in comparison to the photograph of him in his 30s. He seems to be a man who realizes that his art and his views toward art will never be appreciated or understood in the society that he had lived in. He paints himself with a conviction and expression that evidently I think the photograph could never capture.

  16. Patricia Luisi says:

    I completely agree with Alec, in his self portrait he looks sad as though he was misunderstood by everyone in his time and that no one would ever truly understand his work. Where as in the photograph he doesn’t look happy but it doesn’t evoke the same emotions as in his painting. I think that this also shows how great of a painter he was, he not only tried to make his paintings look realistic he also gave them more emotion and likability than a photograph would.

  17. Amber Eilers says:

    Eakins was ahead of his time. His artwork pushed limits with the public. I think in both the photograph and the painting, he seems somewhat disappointed and upset, probably due to the ignorance he saw in others. His paintings were not appreciated for the skill and emotional reactions they were meant to provoke.

  18. dyanahepburn says:

    He was an extraordinarily talented painter, able to capture still pictures like a modern camcorder captures motion in video and still pictures can be made from it. His ideas about equality of education for men and women–allowing women to attend the nude sketching classes–put him too far ahead of the time. I can see why some art historians would entitle him the finest painter in American art. I am not attracted to his subject matter, although I understand how valuable it was to be captured for all to see at that time. He left a great legacy.

  19. Jason Carrara says:

    I agree with the commentaries above me. In both the painting and the photograph he seems unhappy and disgruntled with the way people of his time behaved. The self portrait Eakins painted reminds me of the series of Rembrandt’s self portraits where over time he showed himself as becoming more and more aged, faded, and tired with the way the world was treating him. Artists who first push the boundaries of new ideas and concepts in a reserved and antiqued environment bear a lot of the physical and mental stress of criticism from the status quo.

  20. JennaLarkin says:

    I completely agree with Rumyana’s statement. Some people still are not comfortable with nudes (including myself) and so it is really easy to be critical of something like that. Anytime we are put on the spot or shown something that offends or disturbs us, we humans tend to turn to a critical and negative attitude. Even though I will admit to being like that, I do not believe that it was fair for him to deal with that kind of criticism. What he was doing was still art and people should have shown more respect for his work.

  21. danielle nazareno says:

    It is common for great artwork to initially be criticized then later praised. Because these artists are straying away from the traditional style at the time, individuals are not willingly open to these new ways of portraying and developing art. Eakins innovative techniques were not welcomed by the public; but his art was undeniably fresh and successful. Regardless of the time, it is surprising that individuals would harshly criticize his work when to any eye, whether fluent in art or not, should see his work as beautiful, high and skill, and natural.

  22. Josh Beauchamp says:

    I think Eakin’s adamant stance toward advancing techniques in improving one’s art was bold and crucial. He wanted his students to view the body in it’s most natural state so that they could recreate the human form as naturally and accurate as possible. Using the camera to capture subtle expressions and body language was also a useful asset. These advancements were frowned upon by Philadelphia and you can somewhat see the exhaustion from fighting for his beliefs and methods in his self-portrait yet his methods have clearly worked because of the extraordinary ability to paint people realisticly.

  23. Caleb Kelly says:

    His dedication to his craft is impeccable. His unending quest to perfect the depiction of the human body can be seen in his efforts to attend Jefferson Medical College.
    Eakins’s paining entitled The Gross Clinic is not one of my favorite paintings of his. Yet I selected this painting to highlight my sentiment that Eakins’s work habits should be imitated. For his dedication and unending fervency is present in each of his works.
    In essence, as I gaze at this portrait I see an artist misunderstood.

  24. Caleb Kelly says:

    His dedication to his craft is impeccable. His unending quest to perfect the depiction of the human body can be seen in his efforts to attend Jefferson Medical College.

    Eakins’s paining entitled The Gross Clinic is not one of my favorite paintings of his. Yet I selected this painting to highlight my sentiment that Eakins’s work habits should be imitated. For his dedication and unending fervency is present in each of his works.

    In essence, as I gaze at this portrait I see an artist misunderstood.

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