Being an art educator, I am fascinated by those artists who both painted and taught painting. Among them are artists as diverse as Charles Wilson Peale, Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and most particularly Thomas Eakins. Born in 1844, in Philadelphia, Eakins was an unrepentant realist. Whereas several of his colleagues at the time (Winslow Homer, George Innes, and others) studied in Europe and were eventually influenced by the Barbizon School and their much looser handling of paint, Eakins studied in Paris, not in the fresh air of Fountainbleu Forrest but at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with leading academic painters and draughtsmen of the day, most principally Leon Gérôme. In Spain, he studied Velázquez.
But landscapes did not appeal to him as they did to Homer and Innes. Instead, he chose to focus his art studies on the human anatomy. Back in this country, frustrated with drawing plaster casts of nude figures (the accepted method of the time), he enrolled in an anatomy course at Jefferson Medical College. Such studies paid off in his unconventional choices of subjects--outdoor activities, hunting, baseball, rowing, and prizefighters. As a result, his work did not sell well. To augment his income he taught art at the Pennsylvania Academy.
Perhaps his greatest masterpiece is The Gross Clinic. Unrelenting in its harsh realism, the painting, depicting a bloody operating room, was received quite unfavourably and refused exhibition space in the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876. Instead, Eakins' work was consigned to the U.S. Army Post Hospital Exhibit. In 1886, teaching a mixed-sex drawing class, he was further humiliated by being dismissed from his teaching position for removing a loin cloth from a male model in order to show certain tendons and muscles. Freed from the constraints of academia, he moved into portraiture and the use of photographs to further heighten the realism of his work. Though unappreciated by the public, the list of students influenced by his work reads like a Who's Who of early 20th Century American Artists.
contributed by Lane, Jim
26 December 1997