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Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)

( Originally Published 1955 )

The outstanding American realistic genre and portrait painter of the nineteenth century. Born in Philadelphia, he copied antique casts at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and studied anatomy at the Jefferson Medical College before going to Paris in 1866 to work at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with Gerome and Bonnat. Not completely satisfied with the academic style, he went to Spain to absorb the painting tradition of Ribera and Velazquez. On his return to the U.S. in 1870, he set up as a portraitist in Philadelphia, but with little success. He was an instructor of life and anatomy at the Pennsylvania Academy from 1876 to 1886, when he was forced to resign because of a scandal resulting from posing a nude male model before a mixed class. He continued to paint genre pictures and portraits, the latter mostly of his friends and family, but was without significant public recognition until his death. He continued also to teach anatomy at the National Academy of Design and won occasional prizes but after 1910, because of failing health, did little painting. Brought up in the BeauxArts tradition, he had had a rigid training, but he could not accept the literary subjects or the Romantic idealization of the academic school. He was a thoroughgoing realist with a passion for scientific accuracy but an equally deep feeling for the quality of paint. His earliest work, rendered in heavy impasto, very soon gave way to a series of beautifully painted outdoor scenes of sports activities, sculling, shooting, and sailing (1871-74)-Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, Pushing for Rail (both Metropolitan). Though he continued to paint outdoor scenes, such as Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand (1879, Philadelphia Museum of Art) and The Swimming Hole (1883, Fort Worth Museum of Art), he turned toward indoor subjects and a darker tonality. The Gross Clinic (1875, Jefferson Medical College) and The Agnew Clinic (1889, University of Pennsylvania), both grand in conception and finely handled, met with disfavor because of their uncompromising realism- Rejected not only by public and patrons, but even by artists, he spent the latter part of his life in provincial neglect, painting portraits almost exclusively, except for a series of prize-fight pictures (1898-99) and a series of variations on the earlier theme of William Rush Carving his Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (1908). After the turn of the century, with the rise of the Ashcan School and a new realism, he received some belated recognition and a few honors.

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