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Picturing Thomas Eakins

May 17, 2007 By:
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Thomas Eakins, the greatest painter this city ever produced -- and one of many homegrown artists that the city also saw fit to abuse -- has been very much in the news lately. First, there was the effort by Thomas Jefferson University to sell one of his greatest paintings, The Gross Clinic, to a Midwestern museum. Alarmed citizens, led by the powers that be at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, managed to raise enough money (though by no means all that's necessary) to keep the painting here for the time being. It's to be shared by the two art institutions, which will take turns displaying the masterwork.

But the story doesn't end there. This quick fix to Jefferson's efforts to make a few easy bucks has now blossomed into PAFA wanting to sell another Eakins' painting, this time The Cello Player, to stave off the debt that might be an addendum to rescuing The Gross Clinic.

(PAFA, by the way, was the institution that crucified Eakins, firing him from his teaching position over some scandalous behavior, then helping to vilify him throughout the city.)

Many Philadelphians -- but not the hordes that rose in indignation over the Clinic -- are up in arms over the possible loss of The Cello Player.

Who would have thought a century ago -- even 40 years ago -- that such a fuss would arise over any painting by Eakins in the city of his birth? For much of the last century, the artist was considered, other than by staunch Eakins partisans, to be a talented regionalist.

Historian William S. McFeely has benefited from all this sound and fury since it began just as he was putting the finishing touches on his streamlined biography of Eakins, titled Portrait, published by W.W. Norton. In a remarkably compact space, he manages to define the breadth and depth of the artist's accomplishment -- along with the level of contempt that the city fathers heaped upon this exceptional visionary.

McFeely, best known for his Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography of Ulysses S. Grant, envisions Eakins as another of those definitive Americans who set the artistic and political ground rules for the American consciousness during the 19th century. With Eakins, there is much more to consider, for though he worked with 19th-century materials and themes, his art, especially his portraits, anticipated many of the preoccupations that would arise in the 20th century.

McFeely places Eakins in line with the great transcendentalists -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman -- who flowered along with New England during the late 1800s. These were writers who tapped into a personal malaise -- often, their struggle with depression -- that spoke to a more general American malady. McFeely argues that you see traces of the ailment expressed in Eakins' later portraits, especially those of women.

According to McFeely, Eakins was also "ruthlessly hard on himself when he painted his own portrait in 1902; he was too honest a painter not to record what he saw. As he left the 19th century behind him, a century that had once held such promise for him -- and for America -- he was disheartened, even despairing. When he was born in 1844, his America was the city of Philadelphia and a quiet protected part of the city at that. Nothing, it would seem, stood in his way. What changed?"

'A Foretelling of Strength'

This search constitutes the heart of McFeely's Portrait. For all his admiration for art historians, he notes that many of them conceive of Eakins as a "static artist," even when they are faced with obvious changes in the art. "Change in a person's life is seldom a matter of a single moment; Thomas Eakins was no Saul on the road to Damascus; there are even signs of what the change brought about before the crucial moment in his life. In the early indoor pictures of his sisters, Frances and Margaret, painted soon after his return from Europe in a household overshadowed by their mother's madness, there is a foretelling of the strength and anguish that he would find later in his career."

There was, of course, another Eakins -- the outdoors Eakins -- and his many paintings of scullers, hunters and ball-players are expressions of his athletic side, his love of these games and the exuberance he brought to such endeavors.

Eakins, says the historian, conceived of a better world, like his famous writer counterparts, and its central image was his love of the outdoors. McFeely quotes Thoreau's famous line, "The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation," then notes that the writer hoped these mens' "emotional economy would tally to something better. As we shall see, ... Eakins, not a man of words, but of pictures, shared such vision when he painted the last of his pictures of the outdoors. Swimming was his Walden."

McFeely retells with economy the story of Eakins' early education, followed by his art training in Paris and Spain. His return home in 1870 was eventful on several counts since he became serious about his art and began teaching at PAFA. He also married Susan Macdowell, herself a painter and a longstanding support to her husband.

But in between these well-known facts, McFeely sketches in the back story, and sometimes does so via conjecture, though nothing wild or untoward. For example, Eakins' return was notable because he also had to face a family crisis. By 1870, his mother's depression had nearly overwhelmed her. "There is nothing in the correspondence," writes McFeely, "to suggest that Tom was summoned home to comfort his mother, but once back, that demand was inescapable. If the house at 1729 Mt. Vernon St. had for 20 years provided Caroline with a sense of security, it now had become a place of dread. ... We get only a fleeting sense of the demons that terrified Caroline. As the months wore on she could not bear to be alone."

Eakins' mother died in 1872, and the death certificate cited "exhaustion from mania," which only hints at her suffering. In the many photos of her son, McFeely writes, it seems clear that he "had seen mental illness and was not immune to it; his erratic response to events and people suggests that Eakins was a fellow sufferer from a lesser, but real, case of depression."

Eakins' struggle, however, was not merely psychological, says McFeely; the crux of it may have been his sexual identity. The painter's inability to find true freedom destroyed his equilibrium and, in time, his optimism. That is the key to the meaning of what McFeely considers the central painting in the Eakins canon, the bucolic Swimming, which he describes as his "most important philosophical painting -- and the least understood."

The painting depicts a group of boys swimming naked at a watering hole. The models for the boys were, in fact, all his students, and Eakins is also depicted, lazily doing the breast stroke. But according to McFeely, the painting has much less to do with his homosexual desire, as critics have suggested, and more with a sensual love of art and the need to move beyond the constraints of polite society.

In deconstructing the painting, McFeely speaks again of Thoreau and quotes a line from Walden about swimming. "I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise ..."

McFeely says that Eakins would not have used the term "religious." "And yet, Tom had reached the same level of 'bodily immediacy,' and his 'state of excitement and awareness' only heightened the fact that unlike Thoreau he was not alone, but introducing the students to the same awakening that swimming gave him. It is not the undoubted homoerotic component of the painting that is Eakins' message; it is instead the appeal for freedom, for something truly natural."

When, not long after Swimming was completed, Eakins was dismissed from PAFA for supposedly removing a loincloth of a male model in a life studies class (McFeely thinks it may actually have been for his rumored homosexuality), polite society took its revenge. He retreated to the family home, and when he worked he did "inside" paintings that pinpointed the pain he divined in people's faces. These late pictures stood stacked against the walls of the house, unwanted by the world. Only when his widow bequeathed some of them to the newly opened Philadelphia Museum of Art in the late 1920s -- a decade after the artist's death -- did society begin the long process of comprehending him.

Who knows what the artist would have made of the furor over The Gross Clinic. At the time of his death, he could not have conceived of it even in his wildest imaginings.

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