Historical Markers
Thomas Eakins Historical Marker
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Thomas Eakins

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
1729 Mt. Vernon St., Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

A beautiful oil on canvas portrait of Walt Whitman, with long white hair and beard.
Walt Whitman, by Thomas Eakins, 1888.
"If America is to produce great painters and if young art students wish to assume a place in the history of the art of their country, their first desire should be to remain in America to peer deeper into the heart of America." So Thomas Eakins challenged young artists much as Walt Whitman did young poets - Eakins executed a powerful portrait of Whitman, "The Good Gray Poet," shortly before he died.

The son of a Philadelphia writing master who taught penmanship and wrote out formal documents, Eakins' parents encouraged his art and freed him from the necessity of supporting himself. After attending Central High School, at the time admitting only the best students to study a superior curriculum, in his home town, Eakins studied for three years at the markerPennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His teachers included the Academy's founder, German-born Christian Schussele and markerPeter Frederick Rothermel, but he also took anatomy classes at Jefferson Medical College.

Upon leaving the academy in 1866, Eakins studied with Jean-Leon Gerome in France and traveled in Spain for four years. More apparent in his work, however, is the influence of the seventeenth-century masters Rembrandt and the Spaniards Ribeira and Zurbaran, along with contemporary realist French painters Gustave Chaillebotte and Gustave Courbet, whose dark hues and powerful faces are reflected in Eakins' mature work. Among contemporary Americans, only Winslow Homer conveyed a comparable power using "realistic" art that did not seek to portray people literally - the camera was taking care of that - but to bring out their essence.
Controversial portrait of Dr. Samuel Gross instructing his students during a teaching clinic at Jefferson Medical College. His right hand holds a scalpel and is covered with blood. Blood spills from the patient's thigh as other physicians help Dr. Gross perform the operation.
The Gross Clinic,, by Thomas Eakins, 1875.

Eakins' work first caused a public sensation in 1875 when he offered "The Gross Clinic," modeled somewhat on Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulip," as a candidate for Philadelphia's Centennial Exhibition the following year. It shows Dr. Samuel Gross, Surgeon General of the United States during the Civil War, instructing rows of seated medical students while performing a leg operation. It illustrates how science and the man of great willpower and intelligence can better human life. What shocked contemporaries, and caused the painting to be placed in an obscure corner of the Exhibition, was the vivid muscular structure and blood that appeared on the corpse. Eakins' time at Jefferson Medical College had been well spent. Purchased by the College in 1878 for $200, the painting marker continued to cause controversy and thus for years was displayed in hard-to-find locations.

Eakins continued to paint realistically, oblivious to or in spite of criticism, for a decade after the Exhibition. "William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River" (1876-1877) caused as much of a sensation as "The Gross Clinic." Rush worked from a nude model who was the daughter of a prominent Philadelphian. Her clothes, casually lying in a heap, suggest nudity more powerfully than a simple nude or classical sculpture.

As professor of drawing and painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Eakins made use of nude models who posed before members of the opposite sex. Formerly, artists had to "visit low houses of prostitution and bargain with the inmates," he complained. "This course was degrading and would be unworthy of the present academy and its result was models coarse, flabby, ill-formed, and unfit in every way for the requirements of a school." A deeply unconventional man, Eakins posed nude, swam naked with his male students, and in other ways flaunted the social conventions of the day.

In 1886, despite strong support from almost all his male and female students, Eakins was marker forced to resign by the combined pressure of jealous colleagues who hoped to take over his job and by public displeasure at the presence of marker nude models in his classes. (When the Academy awarded him a gold medal in 1904, he contemptuously sold it for $73 to the U. S. Mint.) After he was fired, following a three-month rest in the Dakotas, Eakins returned to Philadelphia where he spent much of the rest of his life painting portraits of wealthy Americans, most of which have a melancholy tinge. Outstanding among them are portraits of Amelia Van Buren, anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing, a powerful portrait of the black American artist markerHenry Ossawa Tanner and "Dr. Agnew's Clinic" (1899), which almost equals "The Gross Clinic."

A large arena filled with spectators as they watch a boxer sitting in his corner. His manager looks down at him while the referee prepares to throw in the white towel. Sitting at a table, the announcer awaits the decision.
Between Rounds,1898-99, by Thomas Eakins.
Eakins is best remembered today for his depiction of male rowers, nudes, and boxers, all of which are powerfully erotic and have caused speculation concerning Eakins' possible homosexuality. (He and his wife, who, like his parents, unfailingly supported his career, had no children.) Eakins was also a pioneer photographer and worked closely with the innovative San Francisco photographer Eadweard Muybridge. The two men published sequences of rapid shots of people and horses in motion that were an important predecessor to moving pictures. Among his contributions to their bicoastal yet joint work was a multiple exposure of himself running in the nude. He also painted and photographed some exceptionally beautiful pictures of horses.

Eakins is buried with his wife at Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia. Ironically, he began to achieve fame and uncritical acceptance almost immediately after his death in 1916, with several well-received shows in New York and Philadelphia. By this time, his style was considered conservative: in the wake of the 1913 Armory Show in New York and its introduction of cubism, traditional art patrons took comfort in Eakins' realism. (Eakins was a firm opponent of abstract art himself.)

Eakins' student Thomas Anschutz carried on his style of using dark colors and muscular bodies. Anschutz in turn taught many of the "Ash Can School," including five of the celebrated "Eight": Pennsylvania artists Robert Henri, George Luks, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan. Today, the grand public space at the foot of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is known as the Eakins Oval.

Critic Sadakichi Hartmann expresses the general consensus that "Eakins, like Whitman, sees beauty in everything. . . . All his pictures impress one in their design and unbridled masculine power." Some of his best works, in fact, are a portrait and several photographs of the good g(r)ay poet in his old age.
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