Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)
Thomas Eakins’ art was not appreciated until after his death in part because he was a staunch defender of truth. His wife Susan, his chief defender and one who admired his integrity wrote: “[He was] unwilling to do clever or smart work or deceive himself by dash.”[i] We will learn in this essay more about what she meant by that description of one of America’s greatest nineteenth century artists and non-conformists.
Comments by a critic (on the occasion of a memorial show at the Pennsylvania Academy a year after Eakins’ death) further reveal the character traits of a self-reliant artist. Gilbert S. Parker wrote in an essay that “Eakins did what he felt and believed to be right even though the whole world were against him. All considered him ‘the greatest of all modern realists.’”[ii] Eakins’ art is imbued with “reality” and simplicity but above all it is truthful.
The pursuit of truth for all of us requires the discipline to rely on our own intuition and to ignore not only those who would disagree or criticize but also those who would praise. We must also have the ability to master our own conditioned reactions that would distract us from our ultimate goal. Henry McBride noticed this discipline in Eakins. “Eakins made ‘no concessions to any admirer’ but remained fiercely committed to the pursuit of ‘the solemn mystery of life.’”[iii]
Eakins was for a time the head of the Pennsylvania Academy and had definite ideas, learned in his four years studying abroad, about what an effective curriculum should be. Robert Henri, a friend of both Thomas and Susan Eakins, became one of the most influential art teachers in America and said that “For him, Eakins’s stubborn refusal to modify his academic curriculum served as a model of integrity and as a precedent for his own iconoclasm.”[iv]
Lloyd Goodrich, an art historian writing in 1933, felt that Eakins’ influence as a teacher and painter would take time to be realized. “[His] ‘virtues [were] too austere ever to be popular’—[and] would dominate interpretations of the artist and his work for more than half a century.”[v]
As an iconoclast and truth-teller, Eakins was in good company. “His ‘embodying the character of his country and generation’ placed him with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman [a personal friend], and Mark Twain in the pantheon of American artists; his Thinker (1900) was called ‘a type as purely American as Abraham Lincoln.’ To the degree that a painter could be a hero, by the early 1930s Eakins had become one.”[vi]
The pursuit of truth takes courage, the courage to embrace reality, the unpleasant as well as the pleasant. “The main strands of his character were strength, courage, and integrity; and it was these that made it possible for him to look ugliness and pain in the face and record them truthfully.”[vii] The human shadow, no matter how unpleasant, cannot be ignored because too much truth lies hidden there. “And his art, while factual, was redemptive (‘He made it face the rough and brutal and ugly facts of our civilization, determined that its values should grow out of these things.’) He painted what he saw with terrible candor.”[viii]
Eakins’ life became a meditation and he did his best to keep his false self in check. “[When] the pursuit of reality is carried on with the relentless intensity of Eakins it becomes a kind of mysticism.”[ix] He began to embody many of the principles of Simple Reality in his pursuit of truth beyond “pretense and sham.”
Why do we as human beings create? Is it to gain wealth, fame or power? If so, disappointment will be certain. Perhaps we create, not so much to influence or impress others, but to reveal something to ourselves, something about the truth of what it means to be a part of the greater whole. If so, then the life of Thomas Eakins, in seeking the truth of what it means to be human, was indeed heroic.
[i] Sewell, Darrel [ed.]. Thomas Eakins. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art. 2001, page 371.
[iii] Ibid., page 372.
[iv] Ibid., page 373.
[v] Ibid., page 374.
[vi] Ibid., page 375.
[vii] Ibid., page 376.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.