Thomas Eakins (1844–1916)

Pioneering American realist painter, photographer, and teacher.

By Anna J. Murphy

A deep commitment to portraying subjects exactly as he saw them earned Thomas Eakins a reputation as a dedicated realist.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins was a leading figure of the American realist movement, known for his scientific approach utilized to capture the truth of his subjects. His oeuvre, which includes hundreds of portraits, largely depicts people and scenes from his surroundings, offering a uniquely candid glimpse at the American condition during a period of rapid industrialization and change. Born in 1844 to Benjamin Eakins, a teacher of writing and calligraphy, and Caroline Cowperthwait Eakins, Thomas grew up in Philadelphia, the city and setting for most of his work. Through his father’s profession, Eakins was exposed early on to a craft that relied on precise expression and replication, principles that he later applied to his own artistic efforts.

At the age of twenty-two, Eakins left his home in Philadelphia to travel to Paris, where he studied painting under Jean-Léon Gérôme at the École des Beaux-Arts. While Gérôme was notoriously demanding, Eakins proved to be a star student. He continued his training in Paris with Léon Bonnat before escaping to Spain in 1869 for health reasons. Although Eakins was present in Paris at the height of the art world’s upset over the work of Manet and the Neo-Impressionists, this exposure mainly influenced Eakins by reinforcing his commitment to realism.

Returning to Philadelphia in 1870, a Paris-trained painter, Eakins taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His educational principles were unorthodox; he believed an accelerated curriculum of practicing the nude figure to be most beneficent for students. While the politics of nudity had garnered him some criticism, he was named director of the academy in 1882, instituting dramatic changes in the curriculum that included photography and dissection. His influential tenure as the director of the academy was cut short when Eakins was asked to resign after complaints from the families of female students who had been trained with nude male models. It seemed that Eakins’ commitment to his educational philosophy took precedence over his efforts to please people, another demonstration of his dedication to principles.

Eakins painted his subjects with scientific precision, an artistic value connected to his interest in human anatomy. As a student at a science-based high school and, later, Jefferson Medical College, his appreciation for the human form was expanded to a familiarity with the body from a scientific perspective. It was frequently remarked that his work and approach to art had a scientific aspect. While it’s often emphasized that his portraits depict the subjects very accurately in a purely visual sense, it’s also frequently noted that the people in his paintings have a strong psychological presence, visible in their expressions and mannerisms, that reflects Eakins’ astute but subtle awareness of character.

Eakins’ reverence for scientific expertise can be seen in his controversial, The Gross Clinic (1875, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia). Painted for the Philadelphia Centennial Celebration, this portrait depicted the famous Dr. Gross in the operating room. While Eakins’ intent was to show admiration for Gross’ profession and accomplishments, the depiction of blood and nudity in the painting led some critics to condemn the work as too graphic. Once again, Eakins’ commitment to realism put him out of favor with the fashions and tastes of his time, demonstrating an unfaltering resolve that differentiates his paintings from those of other artists.

While Eakins is recognized today as one of the foremost American realists, he was not as widely acclaimed in his own time. As a portrait painter, Eakins maintained his commitment to uncompromising realism, perhaps to the chagrin of the sitters who would have commissioned these paintings. While his refusal to adulterate the visual truth through flattery prevented wide popularity among his contemporaries, it was this unfaltering devotion to capturing reality which established and preserved his reputation as a powerful visionary.

II. Chronology

1844 Born in Philadelphia on July 25
1861 Studies drawing and anatomy at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1864 Studies anatomy at Jefferson Medical College
1866 Studies art in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts under the instruction of Jean-Leon Gerome and Léon Bonnat
1869 Travels to Spain and gains familiarity with the works of Herrera, Ribera, and Velasquez
1870 Returns to Philadelphia
1875 Paints The Gross Clinic for the Philadelphia Centennial Celebration
1876 Returns to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, as a teacher
1880 Begins to experiment with photography, as a tool for painting
1882 Becomes director of the Pennsylvania Academy
1886 Forced to resign from the Academy
1902 Elected an associate of the National Academy of Design
1916 Dies of heart failure on June 25

III. Collections

Addison Gallery of American Art, MA
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX
Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Arthur Ross Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania, PA
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, ME
Brooklyn Museum, NY
Butler Institute of American Art, OH
Carnegie Museum of Art, PA
Cincinnati Art Museum, OH
Celveland Museum of Art, OH
Columbus Museum of Art, OH
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, AR
Currier Gallery of Art, NH
Dallas Museum of Art, TX
Detroit Institute of Arts, MI
Farnsworth Art Museum, ME
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, CA
Frick Art and Historical Center, PA
Gilcrease Museum, OK
Harvard University Art Museums, MA
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
Hyde Collection Art Museum, NY
Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN
J. Paul Getty Museum, CA
Johnson Museum at Cornell University, NY
Joslyn Art Museum, NE
Louvre Museum, Paris, France
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
Maier Museum of Art at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, VA
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, NY
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Montclair Art Museum, NJ
Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
National Academy of Design, NY
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
North Carolina Museum of Art, NC
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, PA
Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, RI
San Diego Museum of Art, CA
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA
Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA
Seattle Art Museum, WA
Sheldon Art Gallery, NE
Smith College Museum of Art, MA
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame, IN
Southern Alleghenies Museum, PA
Terra Foundation for American Art, IL
University of Pennsylvania, PA
Wichita Art Museum, KS
Yale University Art Gallery, CT

IV. Exhibitions

1875 Paris Salon
1877-96 National Academy of Design
1878 Brooklyn Art Association
1878-91 Boston Art Club
1901 Pan American Exhibition, Buffalo, NY
1904 St. Louis Exposition
1907 American Art Society
1907 Carnegie Institute
1917 Metropolitan Museum of Art
1917-18 Pennsylvania Academy of Art
1930 Museum of Modern Art
1970 Whitney Museum of American Art
1993 National Portrait Gallery, London
1996 Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX
2001 Philadelphia Museum of Art
2002 Metropolitan Museum of Art

V. Memberships

National Academy of Design
Society of American Artists

VI. Suggested Resources

Berger, Martin A. Man Made: Thomas Eakins and the Construction of Gilded Age Manhood. University of California Press, 2000.
Canaday, John. “The Realism of Thomas Eakins.” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin. 53, No. 257 (1958): 47-50.
Esten, John. Thomas Eakins: The Absolute Male. New York: Universe Publishing, 2002.
Goodrich, Lloyd. “Thomas Eakins, Realist.” Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum. 25, No. 133 (1930): 9-17.
Homer, William Innes. Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art. New York: Abbeville Press, 1992.
Johns, Elizabeth. Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life. Princeton University Press, 1991.
Kirkpatrick, Sidney. The Revenge of Thomas Eakins. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.
Schendler, Sylvan. Eakins. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1967.
Sewell, Darrel. Thomas Eakins: Artist of Philadelphia. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1982.

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