A collection of paintings, sculpture and photographic work of Thomas Eakins, an American master at the turn of the 19th century, are presented for the first time in France at the Orsay Museum from 5th February 2002 to 12th May 2002.
THOMAS EAKINS: An American Realist
I keep hearing a phrase, repeated incessantly in derogatory tones, that has become an unfortunate cliché: writing about dead painters, or writing about the past. Scientists don’t seem to agree about time, but it does seem that our intuitive notion of it is erroneous in a four-dimensional universe. I prefer to think that the future and past are just like the present, or that the past holds within it the present and the future. So I am happy to be writing about an artist as distinguished as Thomas Eakins who is ever present and will always be a part of the world's future, a positive and enduring future, even if he did work a century ago.
I was deeply struck by his work. For me it is far more than ‘realistic’; it is literally ‘alive’. And this is especially true of his portraits; they are quite extraordinary. No realistic photograph could render those personalities in their complexity with such truth. Looking at his work, I was moved by his sincerity and truthfulness. He obviously grasped the truth about people and he kept their integrity intact, painting it with precision and without a hint of distortion.
It is significant how this collection of his work, this retrospective, can show his philosophy about life like a hidden manifesto with all the paintings rowing in the same direction. It could be the judicious choice of the organizers, but one cannot help thinking that the paintings, pearl-like, are beaded together with his thesis and put forward with a technique that leaves no room for improvisation.
Starting with the meticulously executed rowing paintings of his beginnings, we discover in painting after painting an unshakable belief in the human will, as if human endeavor, or physical effort is the only true force in nature that can overcome chaos. 'The Biglin Brothers Racing' (1873) seems to bestow nobility even chivalrous qualities on the two men in their effort to defend their colors and surpass themselves in overcoming the elements. The full force of courageous effort is visible in John Biglin's face and his tensed muscles (John Biglin in a Single Scull, 1873-1874). The details in the 1871 'Max Schmidt Rowing' are already unmistakably defined to give significance to his deep-rooted belief in mankind as the only concrete source of progress on earth. The natural elements, the wind and the water, are not embellished: they are forces to be overcome, as in the ‘Yacht Race on the River Delaware’ (1874) in which the small, concentrated masses of men balance the dynamic force of the wind in the sails. Again in 'Starting Out After Rail' (1874) the yachtsmen are the only factor of gravity and equilibrium in a composition that is dangerously leaning to one side
The portraits also carry the deep-rooted humanistic philosophy of their author. They do not flatter the subject superficially, but capture their intelligence (as in Amelia Van Buren's portrait of 1881, especially in the movement of the eyes of this distinguished pupil); or yet again they capture the complexity of his own character (self-portrait, astonishingly livelier than life). His important photographic input could suggest a preoccupation with appearances, but I think he attempted just the contrary: he used the appearance of people or objects to better express his inner beliefs in a more concrete manner.
We get to know the personality of the artist through these paintings, and his personal path in life seems to confirm it. Thomas Eakins was as interested in science as in art and had a marked passion for sports. His methodic and precisely modeled painting, especially of the human figure, was nurtured by his study of anatomy at the Jefferson medical College, where he even considered becoming a surgeon. This experience was later reinforced by his study of the nude at the Pennsylvania Academy, giving him that ingenuous vision of life so characteristic of his work. His interest for sports led to observation of the dynamics of movement, and to help him further on this path he adopted photography, a new dimension that helped him both in scientific demonstrations and artistic creations.
Since he was born into a Pennsylvania Quaker family, a touch of Puritanism in thought kept him away from any exaggeration in expressing romantic sentiments or any revolutionary techniques. Yet his trip to Paris in 1866, where he studied in Jean-Léon Gérome's workshop at the recently reformed Ecole des Beaux-Arts, acquainted him with the art movements of the time in Europe especially the sweeping trend of anti-academicism. These were times when the ‘realist’ Courbet had been acknowledged and Manet was gaining influence. And, although some deny this, the influence of European painters such as Corot, Manet or Delacroix are visible in his treatment of colors and paint. Under the influence of Bonnat, his other French professor, he changed his way of applying color, using larger brush-strokes, and became interested in portraiture, reverting to the academic way of preparing the canvas with a dark undercoat (which is the reason for the academic air of some of his paintings that otherwise are felt and straightforward in their rejection of the false mannerism of many academic paintings of the time). With the encouragement of Bonnat, he set out on a six-month tour of Spain in pursuit of the 'realist' icons of the time, Velasquez and Ribera, which rounded out his four-year tour of Europe.
Eakins was one of the first American artists to complete his artistic training by immersion in the 'old' world. Yet, despite the European influence, visible in his painting of the 'Artist's wife with the Setter' of 1884-89 (in which his wife is dressed in European style in a contrived scene) he nevertheless kept intact the strictly uncompromising portrayal of the face, and gives this picture a strange contradictory feeling of a true face in a false setting.
Back in Philadelphia Eakins gradually distanced himself from European influence, keeping only the essential lessons in the treatment of color and form. In 1876, he started teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts of Pennsylvania, about the same time that his painting of 'The Gross Clinic' had been rejected for being too 'crudely realist' for exhibition in the American Centennial Exhibition. He went on to form and influence many an American artist, replacing the study of antique sculpture with that of live models, and developing his own methods. These were inspired by his experience in Paris but also by what he called 'factual vision' based on scientific understanding of the anatomy, of perspective and movement, aided by photography. His belief in precision, shared by several European painters such as Gérome or Degas, even led him to invent a new and more precise camera shutter than those used up to that time.
His passion for veracity was so strong that it overcame his Puritanism, for example when he encouraged a male model to pose completely nude in a class attended by women (but this incident cost him his career as a professor). Then, after a deep depression, his irrepressible talent re-emerged, producing some of the most astounding masterpieces of the American West, such as 'At the Ranch' of 1892, executed with the same immense mastery as a Vermeer. From then on he concentrated on portraying an emerging middle class, amongst whom he chose only those that he admired for their intelligence or creative qualities. ‘The Thinker’, a portrait of Louis N. Kenton dated 1900, is an example of this period, with Kenton representing the 'modern man' who, in his pragmatic and practical existence, has left behind many a mannered way of being or thinking.
His legacy is a homage to human effort and endeavor, physical or intellectual, as well as to the human qualities and values as the only alternative to chaos.
Art Lovers' Paris
Data provided by the Orsay Museum, Philadelphia Museum and RMN.