July 25, 1844– Thomas Cowperthaite Eakins is one of the American painters that I admire the most. I am quite enamored of late 19th & early 20th century American painters & Eakins epitomizes everything I love about the American Realist Movement.
Eakins was unsuccessful as an artist in his lifetime, but he is now thought to be one of the most influential & important figures in American painting & photography. His work is significant for its homo-eroticism. He is also noted for his teaching methods & for his insistence on teaching men & women together in the same classroom, which was groundbreaking & controversial in his era.
Eakins was raised & educated in Philadelphia. He studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy Of Fine Arts, plus he spent several years studying in Paris & Spain. He returned to the Pennsylvania Academy as an instructor in 1876, & became its Director in 1882. His teaching was unsettling for many at the time, especially his interest in instructing his students in all aspects of the human figure, including the nude. There were high tensions between Eakins & the Academy’s Board of Directors throughout his teaching career. He was finally fired in 1886 for removing the loincloth of a male model in a class where female students were present. That’s right, he got the axe for showing the girls a peen & it wasn’t even his own.
Deeply disturbed by the dismissal, his later paintings concentrated on portraiture, usually of friends & family. This work was realistic but with a technique that went beyond just pure representation. He was influenced by early photographers & did many of his own photographs as studies, including many male nudes. I find this photographic work to exceptional, equal to the paintings.
Eakins was married 3 times, but they were very difficult & unsuccessful relationships. Eakins certainly had problems relating to women & he had a documented interest in exhibitionism, sadism, & voyeurism. He was also depressed, arrogant, & full of despair at not selling his work & for his conflicted desires for the young men he painted.
A reader recently took me task saying that I made everybody gay. This has some truth, but after decades of my favorite figures being de-gayed in film treatments, biographies & history books, it seems only fair. Eakins’ gayness is disputed, but the paintings & photographs speak volumes. His male nudes, his close friendship with Walt Whitman (infamous fo his full frontal nude painting of an aged Whitman) & his belief that a naked woman was the most beautiful thing in nature “except a naked man” are a bit of a giveaway, says me.
I have a large “coffee table” book of his work that has given me much pleasure. For more about his life, try the excellent Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life Of An American Artist (2005) by Henry Adams.
Along with John Singer Sargent & James Whistler, his work has been very influential in defining my taste in painting & my passion for American Art.