‘Eakins errs just a little — a little — in the direction of the flesh,’ Walt Whitman observed in the late 1880s. Ideally he would have had the Frenchman Millet do his portrait, but the painter of humble peasants was already dead. Eakins made him a flushed old soul in jovial mood.
Sidney Kirkpatrick’s account of Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) errs a little in the direction of voiceover-speak. His Eakins is ‘a neglected and tortured genius’ for whom Philadelphia, city of love, was no fleshpot and who, though somewhat prim himself, was rated outrageous by the leading figures of that God-fearing hell-hole. This Eakins is one of those posthumously vindicated figures common in popular accounts of 19th-century painting. ‘An enigma who shocked art lovers and critics alike in his time … today he is considered the finest portrait painter our nation has ever produced.’
Born into a reasonably prosperous family (his father taught penmanship and developed a business doing handwritten diplomas and citations for Philadelphians keen to certify their respectability), young Tom tried medical school but decided that his future lay in art and went to Paris. There, studying under Jean-Léon Gérôme, he learnt polished technique. He returned home with what Whitman deemed to be triple dexterity: ‘the hand of the mechanic, the hand of a sculptor and the hand of the surgeon’.
The best of Eakins is his handling of 1870s Philadelphia and Philadelphians. There is Dr Gross, mutton-chop whiskers lit from above as he turns from the incision in his osteomyelitis patient’s leg to explain a surgical procedure to his audience. And there are able-bodied chaps sculling with geometric precision under clear skies on the mirror- like Schuylkill river. ‘The Crucifixion’ (which currently shares a room with, among others, ‘Whistler’s Mother’ in the excellent Americans in Paris at the National Gallery) features another such chap, a waxy-marmoreal ‘Jesus of the Life Class’, for whom he built a 12-foot cross. The model was a student who agreed to be photographed on this cross in a New Jersey wood.
Photographs were a great modern resource for Eakins, enabling him to go one better than Velazquez — possibly — by projecting them as lantern slides onto the canvas. He rivalled Muybridge in his motion studies and stocked bathing scenes with figures viewed mainly from the back.
‘Feel the forms,’ Eakins used to say to his students. He meant that figuratively, no doubt, but his cult of the naked or near-naked model didn’t go down well in Philadelphia. Rumours seethed. There was malicious talk, his wife reported, of his niece (who killed herself) having ‘unnatural sexual excitements practised upon her in the style of Oscar Wilde’. Kirkpatrick gives us to understand that ‘in the liberal and free-spirited Eakins household where appreciation and love of the human body filled the artistic atmosphere breathed there daily’ one might detect a ‘sexually charged atmosphere’. And he suggests that when ‘Uncle Tom’ went West to spend the summer of ’87 in the Badlands of South Dakota he went to be manly, much as he had gone to Paris in ’66 to be artistic.
I advise the reader to brush aside all implications. (‘A viewer can almost hear the sound of laughter and taunts of the boys on the pier and the involuntary yelps prompted by sun-warmed bodies striking the cold water.’) But that still leaves a bulky account of an admirable artist isolated, as much by his biographer as by contemporary circumstances, from the painters with whom he best stands comparison. Degas and Whistler, senior to him by a decade, and Sargent, are pretty well ignored. Sickert, a more inventive user of photographs, gets no mention. The result is that Eakins remains stuck in the biographic rut of his Philadelphia story.