Disrobing the Artist

"Swimming" by Thomas Eakins (1884-85) (The Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas)
Reviewed by John Loughery
Sunday, March 12, 2006

THE REVENGE OF THOMAS EAKINS

By Sidney D. Kirkpatrick

Yale Univ. 565 pp. $39.95

Once upon a time there was Thomas Eakins, the simple pioneer of American realism, a man unhonored and relatively unknown when he died in 1916. By the 1940s, thanks to the efforts of writers like Lewis Mumford and Lloyd Goodrich, this footnote figure had become a cultural colossus, kindred spirit to that other 19th-century rebel, Walt Whitman. In the 21st century, Eakins's reputation has become a good deal more complicated and taken some decidedly unpleasant turns. Not surprisingly, the focus in our own time has to do with sex and subterfuge.

By now, the Eakins story has something in it for everyone -- mythologists, revisionists, Freudians and everyday art lovers. If there is a good reason that this artist is not as universally well regarded as Manet, Degas, Whistler and Cezanne (he is not in their league of talent and originality), he nonetheless created some paintings of great force and conviction. The best known are "The Gross Clinic" (1875), the sculling on the Schuylkill pictures, the portraits of uneasy women (e.g., Amelia van Buren in the Phillips Collection) and the homoerotic "Swimming." To a nation hungry for giants between the Hudson River School and the Abstract Expressionists, he was never an implausible choice, more dynamic than Sargent and less derivative than the early American modernists.

Eakins's dismissal from his teaching post at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1886 for insisting that female students work from nude male models has always been seen as a great symbolic moment in his career and in post-Civil War American culture. That episode fit the one-dimensional cast of the first biographies and was milked by Eakins scholars right into the 1980s: A champion of artistic freedom takes on Victorian prudery, and the philistines win the first round. For Sidney Kirkpatrick, author of The Revenge of Thomas Eakins, the noble truth-teller approach is still serviceable and the "revenge" of his title refers to the painter's ultimate triumph over his first conservative critics.

The problem is that if one wants to see Eakins enjoy any kind of revenge against those who question the nature of his achievement and intentions, there is a newer, much feistier and more pertinent group to take on. With the discovery in 1983 of a cache of papers and photographs rescued from the family home after his widow's death, the notion of a purely heroic, anti-puritanical Eakins has been harder to create. Evidence suppressed by earlier scholars, primarily Goodrich, suggests a darker, psychologically troubled, more vicious and interesting figure. His own exhibitionism, extreme even by modern standards, and maniacal demand for pupil and model nudity in the classroom were only the half of it.

The information revealed by what are called the Bregler papers has been trickling out for a long time, but the most exhaustive study of its material and of Goodrich's notes appeared last year in Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist , by Henry Adams, who has emerged as the most powerful spokesman for the revisionist view of Eakins. A respected teacher and curator, Adams can be faulted for being as excessive in his conjectures and psychoanalytical readings as Goodrich was in his genteel protectiveness, but there is no question that Eakins Revealed raised profound issues and offered an incisive analysis of the art. The book, strange as it is in parts, is a hard act to follow because it forever altered our view of the man and his more ambiguous paintings. After Adams, Eakins brings to mind Edvard Munch more than Winslow Homer.

Though Kirkpatrick obviously began his lengthy biography long before Adams's work appeared, The Revenge of Thomas Eakins can be viewed in part as a counterweight to anyone who takes the implications of the Bregler papers too much to heart. That Eakins might have forced himself on some of his students and had an improper relationship with one sister and a niece does not have to be relevant to our understanding of his canon. (I admit, though, that knowing the little girl in the National Gallery's "Baby at Play" killed herself 20 years later, claiming that Uncle Tom had molested her, will prevent me from ever seeing the picture in quite the same light.) On the other hand, hints of Eakins's homosexuality, voyeurism and ambivalent feelings toward his wife do help explain aspects of more than a few pictures, including "Swimming" and a fair number of the portraits of oddly discomfited women.

Kirkpatrick tells Eakins's life story with crispness and confidence but fails to make the paintings come alive precisely because he rejects a probing psychoanalytic outlook. It feels inadequate nowadays to end by praising a painter for his skill at honest representation, his love of the human form. Those goals are quaint and don't begin to take the measure of a man of Eakins's truculence, deviousness and intensely creative contradictions. A book more solid and sensible than perceptive, The Revenge of Thomas Eakins takes us back to a more hagiographic time.

This is not to say that Kirkpatrick's ably written biography is without merit. The author is particularly good at chronicling Eakins's time abroad, leaving his provincial homeland behind, studying under the French academic master Gerome and assimilating the wonders of the Louvre and the Prado. He provides a clear, detailed rendering of Philadelphia's art politics in the Gilded Age and the stresses and strains of Eakins's family life. He properly evokes the drive and ambition of the man. Had this book appeared 20 years ago, it would probably have been hailed as the definitive biography. But 2006 is not 1986.

The last decade has brought us to a saturation point in publications about Eakins. It is time to go back to the pictures, to let the interpretive dust settle for a while. Kirkpatrick's book encourages this, though the integrity and purity of motive he attributes to his subject -- haunted by more personal demons than we realized -- are not likely to be the last word any longer. ยท

John Loughery is the author of "John Sloan: Painter and Rebel."


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