Thomas Eakins (American realist painter, photographer, sculptor, and fine arts educator) 1844 - 1916
Thomas Eakins, America's greatest, most uncompromising realist, dedicated his career to depicting the human figure—in oil and watercolor, sculpture and photography. Eakins was born in Philadelphia in 1844. He was enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1862 to 1866, attended anatomy lectures at Jefferson Medical College, and profited from contact with Philadelphia's art collections, exhibitions, and artists. Arriving in Paris for study in 1866, Eakins was in the vanguard of young painters who would shift the focus of American art from landscape to the figural subjects favored by the European academies. After almost three years of instruction in France, principally at the École des Beaux-Arts under Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904) and briefly with the portraitist Léon Bonnat (1833–1922), and a winter working in Spain, Eakins returned to Philadelphia in July 1870. From boyhood, he had himself been athletic; as an ambitious, original young artist intent on portraying the world around him, he embraced as subjects the activities that he himself enjoyed, which provided opportunities to demonstrate his technical skill. While Eakins was painting works that expressed his admiration of athletes and outdoor activities, he was also creating intense, brooding images of women and children in quiet, shadowed interiors. These canvases, usually of friends and family, straddle the divide between genre and portraiture. In late March 1875, the artist wrote to a friend, "I feel to myself that I am going soon to do work so much better than anything that I have made yet." It seems likely that the project sparking Eakins' enthusiasm was the canvas that occupied him for almost a year—The Gross Clinic (1875; Jefferson Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia)—and that provoked much controversy at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Having begun teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1876, he transformed it into the leading art school in America. However, discontent also arose concerning his teaching methods, especially his emphasis on the nude. Eakins' own easy acceptance of nudity as an essential element of academic study did not please Victorian Philadelphia. In January 1886, lecturing about the pelvis to a class that included female students, Eakins removed a loincloth from a male model so that he could trace the course of a muscle. Angry protests by parents and students forced him to resign at the request of the Academy board. From 1887 until the end of his career, Eakins focused almost exclusively on portraiture. He usually worked at life scale, renouncing outdoor light and focusing on the sitter in isolation. His portraits reflect an investigative candor that is distant from the glamour or artiness in the paintings of his peers James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. Eakins rarely received commissions for portraits and most of his sitters were friends or acquaintances. In 1898 and 1899, for the first time since the 1870s, Eakins returned to the subject of athletics. His boxing and wrestling pictures are as revolutionary in their subject matter as his earlier rowing scenes. Although few critical voices actively promoted Eakins' vision, the sheer steadiness of his quest to center his art on the accurate portrayal of the human figure had won him a position in the art world. Eakins died on June 25, 1916. In November 1917, The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened a memorial exhibition of sixty of his paintings. The Pennsylvania Academy followed a month later with an exhibition of 139 works. By the early 1930s, Eakins was considered one of America's greatest artists, the reputation he enjoys today. H. Barbara Weinberg Department of American Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art * * * Susan Macdowell Eakins (American painter and photographer) 1851 - 1938 Susan Hannah Macdowell was the fifth of eight children of William H. Macdowell, a Philadelphia engraver and photographer, who also a skilled painter. He passed on to his 3 sons and 5 daughters his interest in Thomas Paine and freethought. Both Susan and her sister Elizabeth displayed early interest in art, which was encouraged by their father. Susan was given an attic studio for her artwork. Aside from her artistic talents, she was also a proficient pianist. She was 25 when she met Eakins at the Hazeltine Gallery where his painting The Gross Clinic was being exhibited in 1876. It was also shown at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Unlike many, she was impressed by the controversial painting and she decided to study with him at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which she attended for six years. At that time Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts was considered the best art school in the United States. Before she studied with Eakins, she studied with Christian Schussele. Under Eakins, she adopted a sober, realistic style similar to her teacher's. She was an outstanding student and winner of the Mary Smith prize for the best painting by a matriculating woman artist. Her sister, Elizabeth, studied at the academy beginning in 1876, too. Other female art students were Mary Cassatt, Cecilia Beaux, Emily Sartain, and Alice Barber Stephens. They received a good education in art, but were restricted from painting live models. During her time as a student, she became class secretary, during which time she pulled for inclusion of women artists in the life-drawing classes of nude models. She married Eakins in 1884. As director of the Pennsylvania of Fine Arts, Eakins had made the decision to use female and male nude models for the life studies classes for students of both genders. As a result of recriminations, he was asked to resign one year after their marriage. Even though he had support from some family and friends, it was a life-changing event that affected relationships in their lives and the Eakin's enthusiasm for life. Eakins spent most of her time supporting her husband’s career, entertaining guests and students, and faithfully backing him in his difficult times with the Academy, even when some members of her family aligned against Eakins. The couple had no children. Eakins painted portraits, many of which included family members, and scenes of domestic life. Between 1876 and 1882, Eakins exhibited her work at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. While she was married, Eakins only painted sporadically. Both had separate studios in their home. She shared a passion for photography with her husband, both as photographers and subjects, and employed it as a tool for their art. She also posed nude for many of his photos and took images of him. In 1898 she became a member and exhibited her works at the Philadelphia Photographic Salon, including Child with Doll, one of her best photographs. She exhibited in 1905 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Of her paintings, Thomas Eakins said of her that she was more adept with color than he and that she was "as good as a woman painter as he had ever seen." Susan Casteras, art historian, said of her Portrait of a Lady, made in 1880, that it showed her "firm handling and solid anatomical construction blended with generally dark tonalities." After Thomas Eakin's death in 1916, she returned to painting, working nearly every day, adding considerably to her output. Her paintings were made in a style that became warmer, looser, and brighter in tone. In 1936 her works and those of her husband and sister Elizabeth were exhibited at the Philadelphia Art Club. She died in 1938 and is buried in the Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was not until 35 years after her death, in 1973, that she had her first one-woman exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In 1976 her work was included in the Nineteenth Century Women Artists exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.