Thomas Eakins (Thomas Eakins)

Thomas Eakins

Artist, Photographer. A realist painter, he is now widely acknowledged to be one of the most important artists in American art history, even though his work received little recognition during his lifetime. He has also been credited with introduced the camera to the American art studio. Born Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins, his father was a writing master and calligraphy teacher. By the age of 12 he demonstrated skill in precise line drawing, perspective, and the use of a grid to lay out a careful design, skills he later applied to his art. As a child he enjoyed the outdoors and athletics, activities that were later the subject of many of his paintings. He attended Central High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the premier public school for applied science and arts in the city, where he excelled in mechanical drawing. In 1861 he then studied drawing and anatomy at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and attended courses in anatomy and dissection at Jefferson Medical College from 1864 to 1865 and afterwards, he followed his father’s profession. In 1866 he travelled to Europe and studied art until 1870, most notably in Paris, France with French realist painter Jean-Leon Gerome, being only his the second American pupil. He also attended the atelier of Leon Bonnat, a realist painter who emphasized anatomical preciseness, a method that he adapted in his own work. In 1869 he travelled to Seville, Spain where he painted “Carmelita Requena,” a portrait of a seven-year-old gypsy dancer more freely and colorfully painted than his Paris studies. That same year he attempted his first large oil painting, “A Street Scene in Seville,” wherein he first dealt with the complications of a scene observed outside the studio. Although he failed to matriculate in a formal degree program and had showed no works in the European salons, he succeeded in absorbing the techniques and methods of French and Spanish masters, and he began to formulate his artistic vision which he demonstrated in his first major painting upon his return to the US. His first works upon his return from Europe included a large group of rowing scenes, eleven oils and watercolors in all, of which the first and most famous is “Max Schmitt in a Single Scull” (1871; also known as “The Champion Single Sculling”). During the 1870s he Eakins painted a series of domestic Victorian interiors, often with his father, his sisters or friends as the subjects, including “Home Scene” (1871), “Kathrin” (1872), “Elizabeth Crowell and her Dog” (1874), “Elizabeth at the Piano” (1875), and “The Chess Players” (1876). In 1876 he returned to the Pennsylvania Academy to teach as a volunteer after the opening of the school’s new Frank Furness designed building, became a salaried professor in 1878, and rose to director in 1882. His teaching methods were controversial for the time. There was no drawing from antique casts, and students received only a short study in charcoal, followed quickly by their introduction to painting, in order to grasp subjects in true color as soon as practical. He encouraged students to use photography as an aid to understanding anatomy and the study of motion, and disallowed prize competitions. Although there was no specialized vocational instruction, students with aspirations for using their school training for applied arts, such as illustration, lithography, and decoration, were as welcome as students interested in becoming portrait artists. Most notable was his interest in the instruction of all aspects of the human figure, including anatomical study of the human and animal body, and surgical dissection. There were also rigorous courses in the fundamentals of form, and studies in perspective which involved mathematics. As an aid to the study of anatomy, plaster casts were made from dissections, duplicates of which were furnished to students. He believed in teaching by example and letting the students find their own way with only terse guidance. By the early 1880s the Academy’s course of study was the most “liberal and advanced in the world.” His instructing methods created tensions between him and the Academy’s board of directors and in 1886 he was ultimately forced to resign for removing the loincloth of a male model in a class where female students were present. The dismissal was a major setback for him and he struggled to protect his name against rumors and false charges, had bouts of ill health, and suffered a humiliation which he felt for the rest of his life. His popularity amongst the students was such that a number of them broke with the Academy and formed the Art Students’ League of Philadelphia (1886 to 1893), where he subsequently instructed and it was there that he met the student, Samuel Murray, who would become his protégé and lifelong friend. He also lectured and taught at a number of other schools, including the Art Students League of New York, the National Academy of Design in New York City, New York, the Cooper Union in Manhattan, New York City, and the Art Students’ Guild in Washington DC. In 1895 he was dismissed by the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia for again using a fully nude male model and by 1898 he gradually withdrew from teaching. In the late 1870s he was introduced to the photographic motion studies of English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, particularly the equine studies, and became interested in using the camera to study sequential movement. After obtaining a camera in 1880 several paintings, such as “A May Morning in the Park” (1880, also referred to as “The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand”), “Mending the Net” (1881), and “Arcadia” (1883), are known to have been derived at least in part from his photographs. During the mid-1880s he worked briefly alongside Muybridge in the latter’s photographic studio at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He soon performed his own independent motion studies, also usually involving the nude figure, and even developed his own technique for capturing movement on film. In 1883 he began his so-called “Naked Series,” which were nude photos of students and professional models taken to show real human anatomy from several specific angles, and were often hung and displayed for study at the school. Later, less regimented poses were taken indoors and out, of men, women, and children. In 1884 he married Susan Hannah Macdowell who had become one of his students at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. His other noted paintings include “The Biglin Brothers Racing” (1872), “Portrait of Professor Benjamin H. Rand” (1874), “The Gross Clinic” (1875), “Portrait of Dr. John Brinton” (1876), “The Swimming Hole” (1884 to 1885), “The Agnew Clinic” (1889), “Miss Amelia Van Buren” (circa 1890), “The Concert Singer” (1890 to 1892), “A Portrait of Frank Hamilton Cushing” (circa 1895), “The Dean’s Roll Call” (1899), “Wrestlers” (1899), “Portrait of Professor William S. Forbes” (1905), and “William Rush and His Model” (1908). In 1891 he collaborated with his friend, sculptor William Rudolf O’Donovan on the commission to create bronze equestrian reliefs of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, for the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. In 1902 he was made a National Academician. He died at the age of 71. The year following his death, he was honored with a memorial retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts followed suit. His wife did much to preserve his reputation, including gifting the Philadelphia Museum of Art with more than fifty of her husband’s oil paintings. In 1967 his “The Biglin Brothers Racing” was reproduced on a US postage stamp. His “The Gross Clinic” is displayed alternately at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. (bio by: William Bjornstad)  Family links:  Parents:  Benjamin Eakins (1818 – 1899)  Caroline Cowperthwaite Eakins (1825 – 1872)  Spouse:  Susan MacDowell MacDonald Eakins (1851 – 1938)  Sibling:  Thomas Eakins (1844 – 1916)  Frances Eakins Crowell (1848 – 1940)* *Calculated relationship


  • July, 25, 1844
  • USA


  • June, 06, 1916
  • USA


  • Woodlands Cemetery
  • Pennsylvania
  • USA

2088 profile views