Born in Philadelphia, where he worked most of his life. Eakins is considered the foremost American portrait painter and one of the greatest artists of the 19th century.
Eakins studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and anatomy at Jefferson Medical College. In Paris from 1866 until 1870, he studied with Gérôme and Bonnat and with the sculptor A. A. Dumont. He visited Spain, where he was drawn to the works of Velázquez. From 1870 he taught at the Pennsylvania Academy, where he was harshly criticized for his teaching innovations: he insisted on working from live, nude models, on learning anatomy from dissection, on learning motion by watching athletes perform, and on working in oils. His refusal to abandon the use of nude models forced his resignation in 1886.
Approach and Influence
Eakins sought, above all, to describe honestly the reality of what he saw. He sought to “peer deeper into the heart of American life.” He felt that no formula of ideal beauty could compare with what is real, so he refused the temptation to see what, according to fashion, he ought to. His portraits were not flattering; they were penetrating, and they often disappointed his sitters. His painstaking study of anatomy and geometric perspective served his ambition to grasp and define in paint exterior reality, while his remarkable honesty of approach provided him a view of the interior realities of human character. His perception and mode of illumination of the human face are frequently likened to those of Rembrandt.
In a period when many artists were concerned with the exotic or deliberately picturesque, Eakins succeeded in recording the everyday world about him with insight and profound humanity. Eakins revived the art of portraiture in the United States and, through his influence as a teacher, founded a native school of American art, visible in the works of his pupils Henri, Sloan, Glackens, and Sterne, and more recently in the work of new generations of realist painters.
Photography and Sculpture
Eakins used photography in many ways: as an art in its own right which he used to make powerful studies of family and friends, animals and rural scenes; as an aid to accuracy in painting, either by copying directly or to inspire a related work; and to study motion. He devised for Eadweard Muybridge a camera which, by means of a revolving disk over the lens, could make several exposures on a single plate, and thereby aid in understanding movement, in human beings and in animals, everyday as well as athletic. Eakins's few works in sculpture include the horses on the Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Arch, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Only toward the very end of his life was Eakins recognized as a major painter. Among his most notable works are The Surgical Clinic of Professor Gross (1875; Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia), the realism of which caused a scandal when it was finished; The Clinic of Professor Agnew (1889; Univ. of Pennsylvania); The Concert Singer (1892; Pennsylvania Acad.); The Chess Players (1876) and The Thinker (1900; both: Metropolitan Mus.); and the portraits of Mrs. Frishmuth (1900; Philadelphia Mus.) and Miss Van Buren (1891; Phillips Coll., Washington, D.C.). His pictures of athletes, such as The Swimming Hole (1883; Fort Worth Mus., Texas), Salutat (1898; Addison Gall., Andover, Mass.), and Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (1871; Metropolitan Mus.), are especially fine.
See illustrated catalogs of his watercolors by D. F. Hoopes (1971) and his photographs by G. Hendricks (1972); studies by Fairfield Porter (1959), S. Schindler (1967), Lloyd Goodrich (1933 and 1970), and Gordon Hendricks (1974).
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