Kindred Spirits: American Painters

Asher B. Durand, Kindred Spirits,
Oil on canvas, 44 in. x 36 in. (111.8 cm x 91.4 cm). 
Collection of the New York Public Library. 
Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. 

To the left is Thomas Cole, the founder of the 
Hudson River School of painting. 
On the right is William Cullen Bryant, a major 
nature poet of the nineteenth century and editor 
of Picturesque America, a set of books 
showing the natural beauty of the United States.

"Painted a year after Thomas Cole's death, this view of Cole with his friend William Cullen Bryant is set on a rock ledge in his beloved Catskill Mountains. By the 1830s and '40s such Hudson Valley scenery was hardly wilderness; it was already opened by railroads and frequented by tourists. But Cole and his followers used it to evoke the "American sublime" and dispel, once and for all, the more primitive forest fears of Puritan days. " Robert Hughes

Albert Bierstadt, 
Rocky Mountain Lander's Peak, 1863
approximately 4'x8"


Context:  Robert Hughes in this next section describes how Americans viewed America and the resources America had to offer.  For Americans, the landscape was and expression of the American Spirit and the painting and writing from this era are somewhat united in their rejpoicing point of view.  Although, at some points, you will be able to see that Americans were also self critical.

Excerpted from,
The sacred Robert Hughes. Time, Spring97 Special Issue, Vol. 149 Issue 17, p10, 10p, 7c, 1bw
HTML Full Text

The first thing the colonists in the New World saw, the stuff they had to define themselves against, was nature. A sense of the wilderness, promising or oppressive, was one of the chief shared signs of American identity, and it became a prime subject of the country's art. "In the beginning," wrote John Locke in the 17th century, "all the world was America." It was not necessarily a reassuring thought, for America seemed very strange to its first European settlers, particularly the Puritans in New England. To them, its rocky coast and tangled woods were--in the expressive phrase used by one of them--"the Lord's waste," an unowned biblical desert full of strange beasts and savage half-men. However, although America produced no significant landscape painting or religious art during the 17th or 18th century, by the mid-19th century, landscape was the national religious symbol. 

The artist who began this process was Thomas Cole (1801-48), a transplanted Englishman from the "dark Satanic mills" of the industrial Midlands. Cole's clients were mainly from the rich Federalist "aristocracy," whose members, offended by Jacksonian populism, wanted pastoral images of a pure American scene unsullied by the marks of getting and spending. Skeptical of progress, Cole painted the landscape as Arcadia, which served to spiritualize the past in a land without antique monuments. He loved the freshness of primal mountains and valleys--unpainted, unstereotyped, the traces of God's hand in forming the world. America's columns were trees, its forums were groves, and its invasive barbarian was the wrong sort of American, the developer, the Man with the Ax. 

When Cole left on a trip to Italy, his friend William Cullen Bryant, nature poet and editor, urged him in a sonnet not to be seduced by the humanized, picturesque Europe--to "keep that earlier, wilder image bright." After Cole's early death, that image was to get wilder and brighter still in the work of his only pupil, Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900). Descended from six generations of Yankee ministers and merchants, patriotic and deeply religious, Church inherited Cole's belief in a style of landscape suffused with "a language strong, moral and imaginative." His paintings--mostly of the Hudson Valley and vistas of South American grandeur--were greeted as both religious icons and triumphs of observation, fusing piety and science in one matrix. Church hit a peculiarly American vein of feeling: Romanticism without its European component of alienation and dread, a view of the universe in which God was in heaven and all was basically right with the world. 

But for all the grandeur of its pictorial rhetoric, Church's work didn't fully express the hot idea of westward expansion within North America--the belief in Manifest Destiny. To convey the image of the Western landscape as glorious and triumphal, the Cinerama devices first used by Church were taken up by other painters, notably Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) and Thomas Moran (1837-1926). 

The German-born Bierstadt made a hugely successful career on the insight that the landscapes beyond the Missouri made America unique among nations. His style was superdetailed, bombastic and almost obnoxiously grand, intended to knock your socks off with spectacle. In Emigrants Crossing the Plains, 1867, his most extravagant anthem to Manifest Destiny, the covered wagons roll forward into a sunset of such splendor that it's obvious God is beckoning them on, flooding their enterprise with metaphorical gold. Moran, the son of poor immigrant handweavers, was virtually self-trained as an artist but was a devotee of the great English landscapist J.M.W. Turner. He created the all-time Big American Painting, the climactic panorama of America's years of Western expansion, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1893-1901. 

Asher B. Durand, Kindred Spirits,
Oil on canvas, 44 in. x 36 in. (111.8 cm x 91.4 cm). 
Collection of the New York Public Library. 
Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. 
Form: This 1849 painting depicts William Cullen Bryant and Thomas Cole in Kaaterskill Clove. 

Iconography: . "Kindred Spirits," which is in the collection of the New York Public Library and depicts Cole and Bryant conversing on a rock outcropping in the Catskills with their names carved into one of the trees... Cole, Durand and Bryant, Ms. Foshay writes in her catalogue essay, "shared the belief that nature, particularly nature in the New World, resonated with overtones of meaning."  "It was a sacred place, where true communion could bring not only joy in the beauty of the outdoors, but also enlightenment.  With ink and with paint, these artists explored the tangible appearances of the natural world in search of its intangible truths.  They communicated their perceptions in landscape paintings and nature poems that guided the direction of cultural ideas and aesthetic expression in nineteenth-century America," she continued...."These men," Foshay continued, "sought through their writing and painting to embellish and dignify the New World with a culture sown on native soil.  The resource that they identified to inspire this native art was the American landscape - unique in its richness, variety and wildness.  They emphasized scenery that minimized such intrusions of civilizations as railroads, buildings and farmlands.  This land was God's creation, still fresh from his hand.  It offered spiritual and moral possibilities, these men believed, for those trained to recognize them." Indeed, the purity of most Hudson River School paintings was bathed in the light of "Manifest Destiny," a concept that would actually evolve a bit later when a second generation of Hudson River School artists such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran would glorify the natural wonders of the American West while another, Frederic Church, Cole's sole pupil, would carry his explorations even further afield to Central and South America and to the Middle East...The importance of the Hudson River School paintings in helping to forge a national image can not be underestimated especially in the years before photography became popular.  The artists would travel regularly to the Catskills, the Adirondacks, the White Mountains, the coast of Maine and Newport, R. I., and travel in those days was neither easy nor quick and their prolific production of paintings, sketches and engravings would provide many Americans with awe for their country's remarkable, bucolic landscapes..."Unlike his mentor and friend, Cole, Durand was attracted to the 'common details' of nature, spotted in situ.  He sought to study them with a clear eye and reproduce them faithfully.  He did not want to lose the keenness of his first impression….The simple design of these studies is also different from the complex compositions of Cole's allegorical landscapes.  Durand uses nature in the form of a dead tree or a bunch of rocks to compose the picture.  The artist sought to discover design in nature, rather than to rearrange the elements of nature to create a pleasing pictorial design….Wandering through the woods and selecting scenes as he found them was, for Durand, a spiritual journey.  The works that he produced became acts of devotion….In Bryant's poems, Durand found confirmation of his belief that the particulars of nature were the embodiments of God's handiwork.  To study these particulars carefully was a process of enlightenment; to recreate them in text and image was a religious endeavor.  Durand produced several pictures based on themes from Bryant's verses, including Thanatopsis and Early Morning at Cold Spring, both painted in 1850."


"Asher Brown Durand was born in Jefferson Village (now Maplewood), New Jersey, the eighth of eleven children. His frail health exempted him from working on the family farm; instead, he helped his father, a watchmaker and silversmith. Following an apprenticeship to engraver Peter Maverick from 1812 to 1817,  Durand entered into full partnership with Maverick and ran the New York branch of the Newark-based firm. The partnership dissolved in 1820 in a dispute concerning Durand's acceptance of John Trumbull's commission to engrave The Declaration of Independence, which Durand had apparently taken on without deferring to Maverick's position as senior partner. (Maverick, who interpreted the act as a violation of their partnership agreement, heatedly accused Durand of trying to sabotage his career.) The completion of the work in 1823 established Durand's reputation as one of the country's finest engravers. An active member of the New York art community, Durand was instrumental in organizing the New-York Drawing Association in 1825 (later the National Academy of Design, which he served as president from 1845 to 1861) and the Sketch Club in 1829 (later the Century Association). During the late 1820s and early 1830s, when his interest gradually shifted from engraving to oil painting, he demonstrated a growing competence in portraiture and genre subjects. With the encouragement of his friend and patron Luman Reed, Durand ended his engraving career in 1835. "In 1837, a sketching expedition to Schroon Lake, in the Adirondacks, with his close friend Thomas Cole seems to have determined Durand's decision to concentrate on landscape painting. In 1840, with money advanced by Jonathan Sturges, Reed's son-in-law and business partner, Durand embarked on a two-year European Grand Tour, part of which was spent in the company of the artists John Casilear, John Kensett, and Thomas Rossiter. Durand's annual summer sketching trips in the Catskill, Adirondack, and White mountains yielded hundreds of drawings and oil sketches that he later incorporated into finished academy pieces. These are the embodiment of his Hudson River School style. With the death of Cole, in 1848, Durand was recognized as the leader of American landscape painting. He died on the family property in Maplewood, to which he had retired from active professional life in 1869."

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream 1899
Oil on canvas 28 1/8 x 49 1/8 in. (American Realist)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

JMW Turner The Slave Ship 1840 35"x48"

GERICAULT,Theodore 1791-1824 
Raft of the Medusa 1819 
Paris,Louvre French, Romanticism

Winslow Homer, The Life Line 1884
Oil on canvas 29 x 45 in Philadelphia Museum of Art

Form: Oil painting, using the theme of a 'storm tossed boat.'

Iconography: Many artists use themes such as "storm tossed boat" or in the case of the trancendentalists, towering vistas that are meant to represent God, in nature. The theme of the boat in a stormy sea is meant to convey the futility of human struggle against the awesome forces of nature., 

"A stay in England from 1881 to 1882, during which Homer lived in a fishing village, led to a permanent change in his subject matter. Thereafter he concentrated on large-scale scenes of nature, particularly scenes of the sea, of its fishermen, and of their families. Taking up solitary residence on the Maine coast at Prout's Neck, he produced such masterpieces of realism as Eight Bells (1886, Addison Gallery, Andover, Massachusetts); in it the drama of the sea scene is imbued with an epic, heroic quality that symbolizes the dominant theme of his maturity: human struggle with the forces of nature. In his Gulf Stream (1899; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City), the black sailor lying on the deck of a small, dismasted boat is dramatically highlighted at the center of a ring of predatory sharks. "
Context:  (Originally published in the Tennessee Tribune 3/9/00 ) 

"I have liked Winslow Homer's painting, The Gulf Stream, for many years, but I would never have understood what makes it so beautiful, nor that it can teach men and women about our own lives, had it not been for my study of Aesthetic Realism. Eli Siegel, who founded the education of Aesthetic Realism, defined what beauty is and pointed to its importance for every person's life in this principle: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." 

People have been pained at not being able to make sense of their desire for energetic activity on one hand, and for rest or repose on the other. Aesthetic Realism teaches that we can learn from art how to put these opposites together in our lives. Homer’s painting — in its composition and technique shows that we can feel truly reposeful and energetic at once. It has in it a man on a boat whose mast has been broken and swept away by a hurricane, adrift in the restless sea, and surrounded by sharks. I once thought it justified my feeling that the world was cruel and battered one about.  I learned this was not what this painting is about, or why I liked it. Homer's The Gulf Stream met my deepest hope — to like the world honestly — because it puts opposites together in a way that shows the world makes sense. 

At any age people can want to get away from things, and older people tend to go more and more for rest. At 88, I am grateful to continue to learn about this drive in myself and humanity in classes and public seminars at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, a not-for-profit educational foundation in New York City. In "Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?" Eli Siegel asks about Repose and Energy: Is there in painting an effect which arises from the being together of repose and energy in the artist's mind? — can both repose and energy be seen in a painting's line and color, plane and volume, surface and depth, detail and composition? — and is the true effect of a good painting on the spectator one that makes at once for repose and energy, calmness and intensity, serenity and stir?

The tumultuous sea and whitecaps, the sharks, broken boat and waterspout in the distance on the right — all have motion and turbulence. Yet  the man seems strangely at ease as he rests on his elbow, looking out. Homer’s composition shows that both man and world are a relation of "repose and energy, calmness and intensity, serenity and stir."  Before I met Aesthetic Realism I shuttled between feverish, exhausting activity in work or sports, to getting home, pulling down the blinds and going to sleep. I felt these different directions in myself had to fight. It was my good fortune that in 1947 I began to study it. In the thousands of Aesthetic Realism Lessons which Eli Siegel gave to people, he saw each person with the deep comprehension humanity hopes for, because he saw every person as an aesthetic situation of opposites. 

When I told Mr. Siegel in a lesson, of a frightening dream about being on a train, on a stretcher, he explained:  You want to be on the move, but while being on the move you're afraid that something in you wants to be very quiet and take it easy. While you're on the train something in you would like to take it easy and be in the hospital. The opposites which were fighting in me, are made beautifully one in The Gulf Stream. There is the activity of the waves, the waterspout, the sharks, as the boat is tossed about, while the schooner in the distance on the left is moving calmly. There is motion in the waves as they roll and peak, but there is ease at the same time because of the definiteness of the shapes and the rhythm of the curves. I believe that is why watching the ocean makes for composure in people. As the man reclines on the boat he is not taking it easy, as I once did, to get away from the world — his mind is alert as he looks out steadily for help. I understood more why this painting moved me, when I read this sentence by Mr. Siegel: "If we look at a desperate and controlled sea painting of Winslow Homer, we can see passion and control given to black muscles." Aesthetic Realism understands anger, which I was so pained about and unable to control. In a lesson Mr. Siegel said: While you jump from being sweet to angry you'll be tired. You want to like people and also hate them, and you go from hot to cold.

While you play around with this you're going to be tired. This fight in me and so many men is resolved in The Gulf Stream. Look at the relation between the open mouth of the shark with its teeth and the dark opening of the boat’s hold from which sweet sugar cane extends. The cane represents a world giving the man sustenance. The fierce and the sweet do not jump from one to the other, as they once did in me. I learned my anger came from wanting to feel that people were against me; that I was in a hostile world I should be separate from. As Homer separates things, he also joins them and shows they are not against each other. The curve of the back of the boat is like the curve of the shark’s tail fin and body on the right, and the curves of waves and sharks are alike. Homer has bathed the man and boat in light and they seem to be safely nestled in a trough of waves. Does this say the world can be comforting? I believe Homer's work shows his hope to make sense of wanting to see the world as an enemy and as a friend — the fight Eli Siegel so kindly explained in me. Aesthetic Realism taught me that repose and energy do not have to fight, and saved me from a life of anger and loneliness. This is a hopeful and beautiful painting because it composes repose and energy, the fierce and sweet, in such a way that shows the world makes sense. We can all learn from it." 


Winslow Homer,1836-1910 Snap the Whip, 1872
Oil on canvas, 22 x 36" (55.88 x 91.44 cm.)

Because it seems the quintessential embodiment of the American spirit, this painting is one of Winslow Homer's most discussed and reproduced works. As one of our greatest artists, Homer and his life are justifiably the subject of a voluminous body of scholarly writing. Snap the Whip, dating from just about the mid-point of his life, tells us a good deal about some of the critical transitions in his artistic development at that time. However familiar and appealing such a work seems to us, it delights and informs with each new look we bring to it. One of the reasons it is so well known is that it exists in several versions: a large figure drawing for the central group of boys (1872, Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York), a finished oil study (1872, Metropolitan Museum of Art), the final Butler Institute canvas, and another figure drawing believed to be a cartoon (Fig. 1), for the nearly exact replica executed as a wood engraving and published in Harper's Weekly, September 20, 1873 (Fig. 2). In addition, there are a few closely related works also dating from the early seventies, School Time (n.d., Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, Upperville, Va.) and Country School (1871, Saint Louis Art Museum). As Homer moved from drawing to study to larger painting, he made a number of compositional adjustments and refinements, a characteristic process for him in his treatment of a subject in different media or scales. For example, there is only one tumbling figure to the left in the Cooper-Hewitt and Metropolitan images, and five instead of four boys in the central grouping. Homer began the oil study by including the background hillside, which he then painted out, possibly to keep some spaciousness in this small format. Clearly, the larger size of the Butler Institute's painting allowed him to maintain the mountain setting, a formal echoing of the curving diagonal line of boys in the foreground.

From his early training as a draftsman and printmaker in Boston and subsequent experience as an illustrator for Harper's Weekly, Homer entered his artistic maturity with a consummate skill for compositional organization and telling detail. Here he fuses in perfect equilibrium the three principal elements of his painting-mountains cape, school building, and figures-both as subject and as design. This tripartite balancing has a further expression in the whip line itself: the three anchoring boys at the right, the four running figures in the middle, and the two flying off at the left. As Jules Prown has shown us, Homer's visual theme is that of interdependence and interconnections, held and broken, among human beings. Painted just as the artist was moving from his own youth into middle age, this, and a number o related images from the mid-1870s, suggests he increasingly had in mind his own sense of relatedness and separateness within family and society. As obviously lighthearted, dynamic, and spontaneous as Snap the Whip appears in both form and content, a number of subtle internal tensions heighten its meaning; the play of stillness and motion, running and falling, stones and flowers, interior and exterior, wilderness and construction, physical and mental. This latter contrast is especially pertinent, for the game is taking Place during a midday break indicated by the shadows of a high sun-from the disciplines of learning inside the schoolhouse behind.

Speculation about the location has proposed Easthampton, Long Island, and upstate New York, where Homer had painted at the beginning of the 1870s. But both the hilly landscape and the sketch for a later schoolteacher picture are more specifically associated with the inland location, though typically Homer generalizes his image beyond the moment. At this time there was nostalgia for the disappearing "little red schoolhouses' contrasted with significant reforms taking place in American education, the new role of the teacher, and changes in the curriculum emerging in the decades after the Civil War.  Homer must have thought more broadly about these matters, for this thematic series of paintings depicted play as well as study, freedom as well as detention, the teacher alone and with students, and the schoolhouse as a classroom, a solitary building, and a backdrop. Indeed, its clean cubic form stands as a central focus of order, proportion, and intellectual clarity within the encircling arms of boys and mountainside.

Along with Mark Twain's writings, Homer's pictorial visions in the 1870s are among America's supreme celebrations of youth and the cult of the "good bad boy" of the time, when humor mixed with serious truths, and play, like work, held risk as well a pleasure. We cannot be certain how much Homer identified with his subjects then, as we know he did in later decades, but the critical issue of aloneness versus community that seems to underlie works like Snap the Whip and Dad's Coming (1873, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) was one that his life and art would face from here on out. Significantly, after Snap the Whip, there would never be another painting of a large and active group of figures in Homer's art.


Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson 1893
Oil on canvas 49 x 35 1/2 in. Hampton University Museum, Virginia

Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in 1859 in Pittsburgh into a middle class family. At the age of 13, after observing an artist at work at a neighborhood park, Turner decided to become an artist. Tanner's father, a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, discouraged his artistic pursuits, hoping that he would instead enter the ministry. However, at the age of 21, Tanner enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. There his interest turned to landscapes. His teacher, Thomas Eakins, a noted genre painter, encouraged him to paint scenes from everyday life. In 1893, Tanner painted "The Banjo Lesson," a realistic study of African American life. By portraying an elder teaching a boy how to play the banjo, Tanner showed a positive and dignified image of African Americans. In 1895, believing he could not fulfill his artistic aspirations in America, Tanner settled in Paris. There, he focused on religious paintings, winning much critical acclaim for "Daniel in the Lion's Den" and "The Resurrection of Lazarus."

Related Artists:
Edmonia Lewis
Laura Wheeler Waring

An African American Realist and student of Thomas Eakins, Tanner faced much racism in the U.S. which had a profound influence on his work.  Tanner painted this piece when he had come back to the U.S. for an African American Congress in Chicago (he had been living in Paris).  This is Tanner’s first major painting of African American life.  Here, Tanner presents a banjo lesson in a modest setting, an elderly man and small boy, likely possessing a familial connection, strum the banjo.  They are very focused, this lesson is a passing of knowledge orally rather than in written form, the banjo acting as a conduit of cultural knowledge.  Though likely a slave and kept illiterate, the man is able to pass on his musical talents.  Making music was a viable profession for African Americans at this time, yet Tanner’s depiction contrasts strongly with stereotypical depictions of banjo players, often grotesque exaggerated renderings.  Tanner is dignifying the often satirized subject by showing the child playing in a new style, showing his advanced skill at a young age.  Tanner kept the detail and light in the center of the canvas on the central figures, while his looser brushstrokes kept the surrounding space sparse.  His expressive light and shadow are reminiscent of Rembrandt giving the work a quasi-religious feel.

Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Walt Whitman. 1887

Whitman 1881 Photo by Bartlett F. Kenny, Boston. 

Form: Oil paint on canvas, portraiture.

Walt Whitman by Thomas Eakins
The friendship between Eakins and Whitman began in 1887. They had met in Whitman's Mickle Street residence in Camden. A few weeks later, Eakins went to Camden without warning to paint the portrait, a spontaneous act that Whitman much admired (Homer 210). "Much of Whitman's admiration for Eakins centered on the portrait" (Homer 213). In the portrait, Whitman was represented exactly how he was. By 1888, Whitman showed his age. And Whitman appreciated Eakins' portrait because it showed his age, too. There is nothing picturesque about Whitman in the portrait -- he simply looks like an old man (my index page shows the similarities between a photo and Eakins' painting). In admiration of Eakins, Whitman said, "'I never knew of but one artist, and that's Tom Eakins,' he said another time, 'who could resist the temptation to see what they ought to be rather than what is'" (Goodrich 123). It was Eakins' realism that Whitman admired so much -- a realism extending even to the portrait of the aging poet. Whitman contrasted Eakins' portrait to Herbert Gilchrist's, "which is parlor Whitman" (Goodrich 123). Whitman, focused on the realistic aspect of human beings, told Horace Traubel not to glamorize Walt's last days.


As a painter, Thomas Eakins had a relationship with Walt Whitman unlike any other. Born in Philadelphia in 1844, Eakins did not meet Whitman until the latter half of the 1880's, but "the two men had a deep respect for each other" (Goodrich 122). In his old age, Whitman had relocated to Camden, New Jersey, right across the Delaware and very close to Philadelphia. Eakins "went into the wilds of New Jersey where he found. . . Walt Whitman, in a self-chosen exile of his own. Expelled from the bourgeois world, or so the legend ran, Whitman and Eakins together built the metaphysics for a distinctly American realism -- the poet's ecstatic and high-hearted, the painter's murky and inward-turning" (Gopkin 78). The two men shared not only a friendship and mutual respect, but an artistic vision of American democracy grounded in realism. 

Philadelphia-Camden Friendship: Celebrating America
Whitman and Eakins were friends in more than just the sense of acquaintance; in fact, Eakins was one of 32 people invited to a dinner party for Whitman's 72nd birthday (Goodrich 124). They were so close that the day after Whitman died, Eakins went to Camden with some of his students and made a death mask and hand cast of Whitman (entitled Death Mask of Walt Whitman, 1892, in Houghton Library of Harvard University. Unfortunately, no images were available). When Eakins heard of Whitman's death, he immediately contacted Horace Traubel to make the mask of his friend, a man he admired very much. This illustrates that the relationship transcended a mere respect between two artists. 

The two artists had similar ideas of America and art. "Whitman disliked European manners and conventions, and he was passionately devoted to America and to a celebration of the democratic ideal. . . The chief similarity between Eakins and Whitman was their self-sufficient confidence, which allowed them to disregard the conventions of their time. Eakins, like Whitman, insisted on making art in a way that seemed most appropriate and truthful, without giving in to popular or critical opinion" (Homer 217). They were individualists who did not waver in the face of criticism. Both men were artistically rejected in their lives -- though as Whitman aged he gained more popularity. Eakins was scrutinized by the bourgeois Philadelphia society. He paid a high price for his fascination with the nude body. Whitman also had a fascination with the body, but because of the nature of poetry -- words -- was less explicit than Eakins, who painted the body. "Both were democrats, despising forms and conventions which hid the essential human being" (Goodrich 122). The tendency to celebrate the human body was prevalent in both Whitman and Eakins' work. A major difference must be brought to light, though: "Eakins concentrated on the individual; Whitman, on humanity and the cosmos" (Homer 219). 

In spite of this idea, Eakins was still profoundly indebted to the poet. When Weda Cook (who wrote music to O Captain, My Captain!) was posing for Eakins, "the artist talked much to her about Whitman and would sometimes quote his verses" (Goodrich 122). Not only was Eakins fond of Whitman's poems, but "it was the concrete, realistic side of the poet, his observation, and his feeling for the body, that appealed most to the painter, who used to say: 'Whitman never makes a mistake'" (Goodrich 122). It is this admiration that Eakins can be classified as a Whitmanian painter.

The Swimming Hole and "Song of Myself"

The Swimming Hole, now widely known as The Swimmers, is exemplary of Eakins' work because it shows his infatuation with the nude body. Eakins once said that "a naked woman 'is the most beautiful thing there is -- except a naked man'" (Matthiessen 604). He actually lost his teaching job at the Pennsylvania Academy because of his fondness for the nude figure (reminiscent of Whitman being fired for writing an inappropriate book). The Swimming Hole also shows that Eakins is a Whitmanian painter because "Walt's work, in turn, approaches the powerful construction of Eakins in his sketch" (Matthiessen 610). Eakins' scene directly echoes Whitman's "Song of Myself," particularly the scene with the 28 bathers. "Moreover, a number of art historians and literary critics have concluded that Swimming is a response to Whitman's 'Song of Myself'" (Folsom and Price, eds. Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive). The section that Eakins is depicting is the following: 

Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
 Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly;
 Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome.

 She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank,
 She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window.

 Which of the young men does she like the best?
 Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.

 Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
 You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.

 Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather,
 The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.
 The beards of the young men glisten'd with wet, it ran from their long hair,
 Little streams pass'd all over their bodies.

 An unseen hand also pass'd over their bodies,
 It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.

 The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun, they do not ask who seizes fast to them,
 They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,
 They do not think whom they souse with spray (Whitman 197-198).

Whitman's words are clearly echoed in the canvas; but so is Whitman's presence. "The example of Walt Whitman, who celebrated the joys of nudity in the open air, may well have influenced Eakins, and Whitman, in turn, would certainly have enjoyed this scene glorifying male companionship" (Homer 116). The sexuality of the painting is strikingly reminiscent of Whitman as well: "There is content in this painting that, in Whitmanesque fashion, is unabashedly sexual" (Foster 29). Themes of fraternity and sexuality permeate Walt Whitman's poems, and Eakins used these in The Swimming Hole. Knowing of  the respect and admiration that Eakins had for Whitman it is no wonder he plays a role in Eakins' painting. It is important that it occurs in The Swimming Hole -- Eakins, who like Whitman was somewhat ostracized because of his love for being naked and undisguised, looks to Whitman to convey ideas of 'manly love' or sexuality. 

In Swimming: Thomas Eakins, the Twenty-ninth Bather, Elizabeth Johns suggests that the above poem is applicable to the lives of the two men. "Here, Whitman as the woman who is both poet and character in the poem brings the young men into full sexual experience, but, in the self-centeredness of immaturity, they do not recognize her agency" (Johns 77). The poem again acts as an influence on Eakins: "In Whitman's poem are the two worlds in Eakins' picture: one inhabited by high-spirited young men -- the subjects of Swimming -- the other by an observing presence that rejoices in their beauty and loves them with a tenderness and passion of which they are oblivious" (Johns 77-8). 

Thomas Eakins is a Whitmanian painter; he was inspired and influenced by the the great poet Walt Whitman. Eakins had the unique opportunity to befriend the poet -- he therefore is influenced by Whitman as a poet and as a person. Their friendly personal relationship is evidence of this, as is The Swimming Hole. As realists, Eakins and Whitman again are similar -- both want to depict the actuality of America.

I Sit and Look Out
Walt Whitman

I SIT and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame;
I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men, at anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done;
I see, in low life, the mother misused by her children, dying, neglected, gaunt, desperate;
I see the wife misused by her husband—I see the treacherous seducer of young women;
I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love, attempted to be hid—I see these sights on the earth;
I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny—I see martyrs and prisoners;
I observe a famine at sea—I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill’d, to preserve the lives of the rest;
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;
All these—All the meanness and agony without end, I sitting, look out upon,
See, hear, and am silent.

Eakins, Thomas The Gross Clinic 1875 Oil on canvas 96 x 78 in.
Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia

REMBRANDT Harmenszoon van Rijn
The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp 1632
Oil on canvas, 169,5 x 216,5 cm
Mauritshuis, The Hague

Dr. Samuel D. Gross appears in the surgical amphitheater at Jefferson Medical College, lit by the skylight overhead. Five doctors (one of whom is obscured by Dr. Gross) attend to the young patient, whose cut left thigh, bony buttocks, and sock-clad feet are all that is visible to the viewer. Chief of Clinic Dr. James M. Barton bends over the patient, probing the incision, while junior assistant Dr. Charles S. Briggs grips the patient's legs and Dr. Daniel M. Appel keeps the incision open with a retractor. The anesthetist (Dr. W. Joseph Hearn) holds a folded napkin soaked with chloroform over the patient's face, while the clinic clerk (Dr. Franklin West) records the proceedings. A woman at the left, traditionally identified as the patient's mother, cringes and shields her eyes, unable to look. Confident of the outcome of the operation, Dr. Gross calmly and majestically turns to address his students, including the intent figure of Thomas Eakins, who is seated at the right edge of the canvas.

Eakins' masterpiece, acclaimed as the greatest American painting of the nineteenth century, depicts the famed surgeon Samuel D. Gross as he paused to instruct students at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. Born in the city and a student at Jefferson, Eakins wished to celebrate his professor and the city's illustrious medical community. He also hoped, at the age of thirty-one, to establish his own reputation as a realist painter. Drawing on his training at the Pennsylvania Academy and in Europe, Eakins composed a majestic painting that wedded modern naturalism to the technique and impact of the old masters. Painted expressly for the Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, the picture and its bloody detail shocked the art jury; ultimately, it was displayed among the medical exhibits at the fair. Kathleen A. Foster , from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections, 2009.

 Artist: Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), one of the greatest American painters, an artist of severity, of 19th-century sobriety, who never seemed to doubt that his was a moral vocation. Eakins was born in Philadelphia, son of a writing master. He approached art as a branch of knowledge, studying as much drawing and anatomy as could be studied in Philadelphia before, in 1866, applying to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the supreme 19th-century art academy.

In France Eakins became the pupil of Jean-Léon Gérôme, the definitive academic painter of clinically precise scenes from Roman history. Returning to Philadelphia, he quickly found himself as an artist, transferring the historical weightiness of French academic painting to an American context, painting sportsmen frozen at their oars, reflected in still, empty water, most brilliantly in his 1871 work The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) .

Eakins taught at the Pennsylvania Academy, and insisted on the most thorough research, by his students and himself. He was a photographer, and used photographs to prepare paintings; nude shots of him and male friends survive. He got into trouble for letting female students draw the male nude, for which he lost his professorship and was censured for "conduct unworthy of a gentleman". Looking at his paintings, it seems amazing that anyone could have doubted Eakins's seriousness.

Subject: Eakins approached Dr Samuel D Gross (1805-84) with his idea for a portrait in the operating theatre at Jefferson Medical College. Gross was an innovative surgeon and champion of surgical intervention. This operation - to save a gangrenous leg by removing pus - is one he pioneered.

Distinguishing features: It is Gross's face that holds you, his forehead caught by light from above, a glowing white star fringed with silver and grey, and the black pits of his eyes, their darkness only heightened by the light. He has paused for a moment to explain a detail of the procedure to the students all around him in the shadows of the theatre. The painting does not freeze the moment so much as expand it infinitely: there is a massive, grand stillness to this imposing canvas in which you contemplate with awe the dominating, dignified figure of the surgeon, all in black, except for the shocking shining red blood on his right hand as he holds the scalpel like a pen, or perhaps a palette knife.

What is Gross thinking? There is something terrible, unutterable in the shadowed rock of his face. All the weight and responsibility of this moment between life and death is in his slightly disengaged moment of thought - this is what it is to be a surgeon.

Below him, an old woman, the mother of the young man on the operating table, claws her hands in horror, covering her face, her eyes. This directs us back to Gross, to his calm, heroic ability to look, to see. His eyes contain the knowledge of sickness, the history of pain. The assistants too look unflinchingly at the wound they hold open. At a remove, the audience watch and learn. Two figures lean in the shadows of the theatre's exit, reminiscent of the passages of a Roman arena. This is a modern arena, and Eakins portrays Gross as a modern hero.

Inspirations and influences: The figures receding in the passage recall the figure in the doorway in Velázquez's Las Meninas . In its ambition and intellect, this is the American Las Meninas .

Is Thomas Eakins a Great Artist?

by James F. Cooper

Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic, 1875 Philadelphia Museum of Art and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Philadelphia, PennsylvaniaThomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic, 1875
Philadelphia Museum of Art and
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Today, Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) is generally recognized as an American master; indeed, some place him at the very pinnacle of American art. The Gross Clinic, completed by Eakins in 1875 after a year of torturous effort and now regarded as the centerpiece of his career, was recently the object of a heated bidding war between the city of Philadelphia and a very rich buyer who wished to add it to her collection of American treasures in another state. The monumental 2002 retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its accompanying catalogue, which launched a new wave of interest in the artist’s career, featured some of Eakins’s best, including The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) from 1871, Swimming (1885) and Singing a Pathetic Song (1881).

Now, several new biographies have dredged up the old controversies and scandals that tainted his career. The precipitating event was the discovery, in 1984, of the Charles Bregler Collection of thousands of Eakins documents, letters, memorabilia and photographs, hidden away for almost a century. Purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1985, these documents are examined in great detail by Henry Adams in Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist (Oxford University Press, 2005). They have done much to lend credence to the original charges that led to Eakins’s dismissal as Professor of Drawing and Painting by the directors of the Pennyslvania Academy in 1885. Indeed, the book raises several additional new charges of bizarre personal behavior. Adams’s research also supports the contention that Lloyd Goodrich, in the first (1933) biography of Eakins, “reported information very selectively, suppressing things that seemed odd about Eakins’s behavior, and even deliberately altering facts to support his view of Eakins’s character.”1 It all makes for a remarkably interesting read, with sordid twists and turns, several deaths, suicides, breakdowns and insanity.

Almost lost in this soap opera is the only truly relevant question: is Thomas Eakins a great artist? Do these dark stories of impropriety have a direct bearing on the quality of his painting? Adams argues convincingly that the dour subject matter of Eakins’s paintings was a result of his life experiences. Sidney K. Kirkpatrick draws a similar conclusion in The Revenge of Thomas Eakins (Yale University Press, 2006). Indeed, both attribute Eakins’s growing popularity today precisely to the fact that he seems to have flouted Victorian social and sexual mores. Yet Adams and, to a lesser degree, Kirkpatrick also point out that the newly discovered personal papers, secreted by Bregler, Eakins’s long-time assistant, make one wonder why the artist wasn’t arrested at some point. More importantly, I believe, the new documentation challenges the integrity of his art and his place as the most important art instructor of human anatomy and figure drawing in nineteenth-century America.

Some viewers, myself included, have always been disturbed by the soupy darkness that envelops the majority of Eakins’s paintings. It was very apparent in the recent retrospective at the Met. When Eakins returned from three years of study with Jean-Léon Gérôme at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, his palette was much brighter; his brushstrokes were phlegmatic and daring. Between 1870 and 1873 he created a series of promising canvases depicting scull racing on the Schuylkill River. The tour-de-force Max Schmidt in a Single Scull (1871) and The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake (1873) impressed the Philadelphia art world with their strong compositions, solid draftsmanship, subtle color, strong chiaroscuro, lovely impressions of nature and the river, and painterly brushwork. Before coming back to the United States, Eakins had taken a trip to Madrid to study the paintings of Velázquez, whose portraits had a profound influence on Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas. For a brief time back in Philadelphia it looked as if Eakins were going to emerge as an American Manet or, at the very least, an American Pissarro. Then, inexplicably, darkness flooded his paintings. Perhaps, the terrible anecdotes that Adams and Kirkpatrick have chronicled weighed him down.

Eakins was only twenty-two when he entered Gérôme’s atelier. It was considered an honor to study with one of the most successful history painters in France. Many Americans applied. Eakins, who appealed to the master in person, was accepted, but Gérôme had misgivings as time went by. In three years of study Eakins never finished a single study of the human figure, required for completion of the course. Eakins returned to Philadelphia without completing his studies. Nevertheless, he presented himself as one of Gérôme’s favorite pupils and claimed to be very knowledgeable about the human figure. Eakins quickly became a professor of drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy. For the next ten years he was regarded as the supreme instructor of figure drawing in the United States and lectured widely in Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Yet many art critics and patrons disliked his paintings. One critic described Eakins’s paintings as “lifeless.”2 Mariana Van Rensselaer, one of the foremost art critics of the period, intuitively grasped the problem when she wrote that Eakins’s paintings were “scientifically true, but…artistically false.”3

It was known during Eakins’s lifetime that he was a pioneer in the use of photography to assist the artist in understanding human anatomy and motion. What was not known until now was the extent that Eakins relied on photographs as his primary reference source for portraits and scenes. The Bregler Collection reveals that Eakins shot thousands of photographs, many of them of nude male and female models, which he projected directly onto his canvases with the use of an opaque projector. He traced them and made scratch marks to guide his brush, then camouflaged the incisions with layers of paint. Eakins and his wife, Susan, took great care to keep the projection stage of the process and the source photographs a secret. She left instructions that all records and photographs should be burned upon her death. When she died in 1939, Bregler rescued the entire contents of the studio; it remained hidden until 1984.

Thomas Eakins, The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull), 1871 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York CityThomas Eakins, The Champion Single Sculls
(Max Schmitt in a Single Scull), 1871
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York CityMany artists have used photography as a primary or secondary source, but Eakins and his enablers, who included his wife and assistants, went to extraordinary trouble to hide any evidence of this activity. The publicity might have tarnished the credibility of the artist, who during his lifetime was considered the premier expert and lecturer on human anatomy. But why should this make any difference in our evaluation of Eakins’s art? The information provides a clue to what’s wrong with Eakins’s paintings. It explains why the figures in his compositions seem tacked together artificially. It explains the awkward application of paint within the linear contour of a figure, which doesn’t seem to correspond to its volume and lighting. It explains why some of his portraits seem so lifeless. The color of the red dress in the 1903 painting The Actress (Portrait of Suzanne Santje) appears to be troweled on with a palette knife without regard to the human form wearing the dress. Photographs of Margaret Harrison, who posed for Singing a Pathetic Song (1881), discovered in the Bregler Collection, are exactly like the image replicated in the finished painting.

The most disturbing disclosure about Eakins’s work is just how he was able to achieve the much-lauded technical truth of his portraits. Eakins sometimes shot as many as forty pictures for each subject. However, claims Kirkpatrick, these technical revelations “do not detract from a viewer’s appreciation of Eakins’s paintings. Instead, they put them in a fascinating new context.”4Context is the operative word here. Kirkpatrick is not looking with the eye of an artist. For him, the aesthetics of Eakins’s work is not the issue. Modernity, for Kirkpatrick, as it is for many strong advocates of Eakins’s work, means being a rebel against the status quo, against the values of society and its cultural institutions. But was Eakins a rebel? The Bregler papers reveal the identities of the heretofore undisclosed witnesses who testified against Eakins at the secret hearings conducted by the directors of the Pennsylvania Academy, which led to his removal as professor of art. The myth is that Eakins was discharged for removing a loin cloth from a male model in front of a classroom of female art students. Indeed, the frontispiece of Kirkpatrick’s book features a quote by Eakins: “I see no impropriety in looking at the most beautiful of Nature’s works, the naked figure.” The truth of the matter is quite different. The directors initially defended Eakins, calling the incident “a tempest in a teapot.”5 It was only after more serious accusations were raised that the board was moved to act. Charges of incest, physical abuse of several female students and unnatural behavior with male students were made by two of Eakins’s own sisters (through their husbands). Moral failings are, regrettably, part of many artists’ biographies. More important to our inquiry are the charges, brought by his own staff, about the failure of his teaching methods, particularly his convoluted drawing formulas based upon mathematics, isometric drawing and perspective. The faculty particularly objected to the cancellation by Eakins of all courses on aesthetic theory, art history and sketching from nature. Eakins’s famous unpublished Drawing Manual (published in a hardbound illustrated edition by the Philadelphia Museum in 2005) is now revealed as a reactionary and in many ways preposterous text on perspective. Incredibly, although he shot “several thousand” photographs of the naked human form, there is not one single drawing or reference to the human body contained in its pages. The manual is limited to perspective studies of simple mechanical objects—a cube, a chair, a table.

The real reason Eakins was fired was the suspicion that he was an incompetent artist. Those who testified against him were younger, more modernist artists who had worked with him. Eakins’s paintings did not sell. Commissioned portraits were returned or never picked up. These controversies served as distractions from the real issue, the poor quality of his art. The Met retrospective in 2002 was, for me, a sobering experience. It began with the exciting paintings of rowing sculls on the Schuylkill River but quickly bogged down in a string of dark, soupy, unattractive works, occasionally broken by a portrait of some merit. His most famous painting is The Gross Clinic (1875), painted only a few years after his return from studying in Paris with Gérôme. To this day, Eakins’s reputation hinges upon this monumental work. He painted it as a tour de force, representing the host city, Philadelphia, at the first World’s Fair to be held in America, on the centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. A great pavilion was erected by the city of Philadelphia to hold the American art. To Eakins’s chagrin, when the fair opened, The Gross Clinic was nowhere to be seen in the American exhibition hall. After many embarrassing inquiries he was directed to an army-post hospital, where his painting had been hung between a pair of cots holding poorly modeled papier-mâchè patients. The few contemporary writers who reviewed it shared the feeling of the judges that it was not suitable for viewing, owing to its “graphic nature.” The New York Herald called the work “decidedly unpleasant and sickeningly real in all its gory details.”6 The New York Tribune called it “powerful, horrible…yet fascinating.”7 Another critic called it a “degradation of art.” The majority of comments focused on its realistic depiction of the bloody patient’s body and the stained hands of Dr. Gross (who was also very unhappy with the results). Few critics ventured to judge it aesthetically, although some made derogatory comments about the darkness of the color. It languished unwanted for two years, until it was purchased for $200 by alumni of Jefferson Medical College.

The revival of Eakins’s reputation is based upon the artist’s perceived integrity, brutal honesty and high moral stance. Despite all the new information on Eakins’s scandalous life, both Adams and Kirkpatrick consider The Gross Clinic a masterpiece. Kirkpatrick writes: “No artist since the Renaissance had overcome such challenges in arrangement of figures and action or composed a work of such intellectual and metaphysical scope.”8 John Russell, writing for The New York Times, concurs: “We prize Eakins above all for a new dimension of moral awareness that he brought to American painting.” He concludes: “We ask ourselves whether Thomas Eakins was not the greatest American painter who ever lived.”9 It is this very question which drew me to re-examine the painting at its temporary installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Eakins’s monumental effort, eight by seven feet, portrays the celebrated surgeon Dr. Samuel D. Gross removing a piece of infected bone from the thigh of a patient suffering from osteomyelitis. Five doctors are assisting him in this delicate operation.10 The surgery is being observed by almost thirty medical students in the amphitheater at Jefferson Medical College. Gross is depicted deep in thought, pausing momentarily with scalpel in hand. A strong light from above illuminates the dome of Gross’s head and the heads of the doctors working on the patient. William Innes Homer, author of Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art (Abbeville Press, 1992), compares The Gross Clinic to Rembrandt’s masterpieces The Night Watch (1642) and the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulip (1632). Homer praises the American artist, but the comparison immediately draws attention to what is wrong with Eakins’s painting. The darkness surrounding the figures in both Rembrandt works is rich, and the deep velvet blacks add greatly to the atmosphere. The black background which covers almost two-thirds of The Gross Clinic is essentially a dark wash tinted with red. All of the doctors and several of the students are dressed in black, including the patient’s mother, shown directly right and below Dr. Gross’s right hand. The perspective of the painting is askew because Eakins has used white in the background behind Dr. Gross to frame his own self-portrait (the figure seated in the first row of the auditorium sketching the scene). The chalky white of the table he is drawing on sits visually on the surface of the canvas, refusing to recede into the background. To make matters worse, Gross’s shirt is almost the same tone and chroma as the tabletop behind him. Eakins takes no advantage of the painting’s apparent “flatness.” He makes little attempt to organize the figures and the negative or “empty” spaces between figures into formal, cohesive elements of color and line, which communicate visually with each other and the entire composition. Indeed, his preparatory oil sketches for the final work reveal the same confusion and murkiness.

Why did Eakins’s scene disturb so many people? The entire surface of the huge painting is dominated by red, possibly alizarin crimson. Everything has a red tint, the blacks, the whites and the greys. Deliberately or unconsciously, Eakins’s entire surface is the color of human bone marrow. The blood on Dr. Gross’s hand and the hands of the surgeons assisting him are merely highlights of the pervasive ghoulish color that permeates every inch of the canvas. Dr. Gross’s portrait is very well done, although he often complained about the number of sittings he was forced to endure, but the other portraits are remarkably bland and uninteresting. The dark area directly behind Dr. Gross’s head is scrubbed in, with heavy phlegmatic brushstrokes that sit visually on the surface of the canvas. This might work in an Impressionist or Fauve painting but is distracting in a scene that purports to be realist. The heavy brushstrokes extend across the center of the painting, where they stop abruptly in mid-air, in front of a hallway leading into the auditorium. To complicate matters further, there are two figures standing in the aisle of the hallway, rendered in an unconvincing dark wash. Similarly rendered are many of the ghostly figures in the auditorium. The background color suggests dark brown gravy, a problem that increasingly afflicts many of Eakins’s later works. Eakins’s reputation as a professor of art rested upon his knowledge of anatomy and perspective. In his manual for artists Eakins writes: “the one and only law of perspective: Twice as far off, half as big.” He breaks his own cardinal rule in his depiction of the only female figure in the room full of men. The patient’s mother is seated directly behind Dr. Gross, her clenched hands flung across her face in a melodramatic gesture, yet she looks about a third of Gross’s size. Much of Eakins’s reputation rested on his knowledge of the human body and his ability to paint it. There is little evidence of that here in The Gross Clinic.


Eakins’s most aesthetically successful works are probably his earliest, particularly outdoor scenes. Adams concurs with Kirkpatrick that Eakins’s reputation rests upon the perception of “honesty” and “integrity” in his portraits.11 However, The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) of 1871 and The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake (1873) are demonstrably among the most successful compositions Eakins ever painted. Did the artist lose his nerve? His paintings grew darker and muddier thereafter, with brief flashes when he pulled himself together. Singing a Pathetic Song (1881) and Swimming (1885) are the last successful major works he produced, although he continued to paint for another thirty years. However, the Bregler Collection reveals all of the figures, nude and clothed, in both of these paintings were traced from photographs, which Eakins took great pains to disguise. He was still a relatively young man in 1886 when he was fired from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Subsequently, he was fired from several other drawing academies. Did the controversy over his firings promote a reputation for “honesty,” “integrity” and “high moral standards”12? Alexander Eliot writes: Eakins’s “greatest virtue [honesty] counted against him.”13 But is it rather his dishonesty about his secretive professional and personal life that sets him apart?

Adams, mesmerized by the scandals in Eakins’s private and professional life, neglects what is paramount: was Eakins a great artist? Would we spend as much time on the scandals in the lives of van Gogh, Gauguin, Rimbaud, Toulouse Lautrec and Baudelaire? No, of course not. They are modernists and expected to misbehave. In the misguided attempt to transform Eakins into a modernist, far too little attention has been directed toward the quality of his work. Lloyd Goodrich maintained that “Eakins was the greatest American artist,” while John Singer Sargent was “superficial.”14 Yet Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward D. Boit (1882) is a far superior figurative-group painting than The Gross Clinic. Sargent brilliantly resolves the challenges of composition, darkness and light, color, brushwork and realism that confounded Eakins. Ironically, Sargent composed this miracle of elegance and beauty when he was only twenty-six, five years younger than Eakins when he painted The Gross Clinic. Both of these American artists had trained at the École des Beaux-Arts. From the beginning, Sargent’s genius was recognized by his teachers and fellow students. “Eakins has the unique distinction of having had more of his paintings destroyed by disgruntled patrons than any other artist of modern times,” observes Kirkpatrick. It is not enough to be a martyr, real or perceived, to modernism or any other movement. We must judge artists, contemporary or historical, on the integrity and beauty of their work.


1 Henry Adams, Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 35.
2 Sidney J. Kirkpatrick, The Revenge of Thomas Eakins (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 174.
3 Ibid., p. 251.
4 Ibid., p. 14.
5 Adams, Eakins Revealed, p. 51.
6 Kirkpatrick, The Revenge of Thomas Eakins, p. 196.
7 Ibid., p. 196
8 Ibid., p. 190.
9 John Russell, “Thomas Eakins,” in Reading Russell: Essays 1941–1988 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989), p.108.
10 This operation was considered a serious medical proceedure in the nineteenth century.
11 Adams, Eakins Revealed, p. 25.
12 Ibid., p. 25.
13 Alexander Eliot, Three Hundred Years of American Painting (New York: Time Incorporated, 1957), p. 138.
14 Cited, Adams, Eakins Revealed, p. 24.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2007, Volume 24, Number 2.
- See more at:

Eakins, Thomas The Swimming Hole 1884-85
Oil on canvas 27 3/8 x 36 3/8 in. 
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth

Manet, Dejeuner sur l'herbe 1863. 
Oil on canvas 84" x 106"

Eakins, Thomas The Swimming Hole (1885)
The Independent's Great Art series
By Tom Lubbock

Friday 01 February 2008
 About the artist

The painted world is still: this is well known. But making that point, David Hockney once gave it a wise turn, saying that in pictures "things don't actually move. The figures are, and will always remain, exactly where the painter put them". Notice, he doesn't say (as you might expect) that the figures remain exactly where they are. No, they remain exactly where the painter put them.

This brings the stasis of the image up against the activity of the artist. The figures in a painting do not just materialise on the picture surface. Where they are is where they've been put. Like the laying of a table or setting of a stage, painting a picture involves numerous acts of placing and positioning.

Of course, to look at a painting in this way means that you imagine its figures as being somehow separate from the picture in which they appear. It's as if they pre-existed the scene they were assembled into – as if they could be picked up and moved about before being put in their final position.

That's not literally how paintings are made, but it's not so far off. In the preliminary studies for a picture, the same figure may be repositioned several times before arriving at its final pose and place. During the painting process, it may be moved around on the canvas itself. If the painting is from life, there is also a living model involved. Models really are separate bodies, who are put into positions by verbal instruction or direct physical manipulation. Painters may also use puppets and "lay-figures" for similar purposes. In all these ways, the painter puts the figure in its place.

And in some pictures, you're made to feel this. The "putness" of the figures is not just a fact, it's an effect. You feel that they are separate from the scene in which they appear. You feel that they've been physically put into the positions they occupy. The human figures in these pictures, though apparently free agents, seem like dolls, models, playthings – passive, manipulable.

The effect has something in common with pornography, with its helpless sex objects put through their positions and permutations (even though there may be no actual sex portrayed). A good example is the work of Balthus, whose figures often find themselves bound, held down and splayed by the firm geometrical composition of his pictures. But that's not the only way to do it.

Thomas Eakins' The Swimming Hole is a classic of American painting. It shows a scene of healthy, manly, outdoor activity: a group of young fellows having stripped off for a dip. It is based on the swimming excursions that were enjoyed by the artist and his students. Eakins himself appears in the water at bottom right – in signature position, so to speak.

The subject has often been seen as homoerotic – or unconsciously homoerotic, and therefore perhaps the more erotic, for being unconscious of it. And obviously we can all be knowing about the 19th century and its ideals (or delusions) of masculine comradeship.

But if there is something sexy in The Swimming Hole, it's not solely in its subject matter. It's in the feeling that these fine naked bodies are the picture's playthings. Though shown at exercise, these swimmers don't seem fully in command of themselves. They've been put – in their places, their poses, their actions.

This is partly because the figures, especially the three on the rock, seem separate, both from one another and from the picture. They don't look like a group that has assembled itself, more like a group that has been assembled – three disconnected bodies, put together, collage-wise.

There is also the way the figures bear themselves. They don't look like people doing something, more like people maintaining positions that have been imposed on them, into which they have been put. They look like models holding studio poses.

This is most evident in the middle figure of the three, the man half-kneeling with his hand raised. What's he doing? In the studio it would be clear: he is employing a standard trick for keeping an arm raised and flexed, holding on to a sling, to support the strain of the limb. But in the painting the sling is eliminated – leaving only a nude in an overtly artificial pose.

In their arrangement and in their poses, these three bodies show clear signs of being under external manipulation. (All three might actually be the same man, in different positions.) Though purportedly pursuing fresh air, fitness, freedom, the figures on the rock are laid out like mannequins in a shop window. They have strong young physiques, but they're doll-like. This alluring mixture of muscularity and passivity: did Eakins know what he was doing?

The artist

Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) was – until Pollock – the great American artist. Born in Philadelphia, he had studied Velazquez and Rembrandt in Europe, and pursued Realism with scientific rigour. He learnt from Muybridge's photographs of bodies in motion. A great believer in the living model, he lost his teaching job after allowing mixed life-classes to draw a male nude. His greatness was largely posthumous.