Holding Back

John Haber
in New York City

Thomas Eakins

Thomas Eakins makes an unlikely revolutionary—or even, as his retrospective's title calls him, an "American Realist." In his finest portraits, women from high society wear elegant evening dress. Clergymen sit upright in strict profile, gripping their chair of office like a weapon from God. In his urban landscapes, signs of labor and leisure share a conspicuous absence. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Eakins battles for respectability with the past.

One could never imagine him in a lonely atelier. Perspective first and then anatomy, he taught. Backgrounds increasingly favor dark yellows and browns, in a manner long attributed to Rembrandt. Thomas Eakins's The Gross Clinic (Jefferson Medical College, 1875)Trees take on a misty uniformity closer to Corot than to Impressionism—or beyond. When the leading academy refused his work, Eakins founded a new one, and students followed.

So why did Philadelphia's signature painter suffer decades of rejection? It comes down to more than a very modern refusal to flatter. In a retrospective first at the city's museum of art, later at New York's Metropolitan Museum, his work carries an erotic charge and a brooding inwardness. It starts with a passionate commitment to experiment, including nude photographs. It leads to a struggle between past and present. It speaks to the plain sense of things and emotions they can never fully express.

Drawing blood

His career begins nearly at age 30, in the early 1870s, after terribly proper studies as an American in Paris with Jean-Léon Gérôme, the academic painter to end all reactionaries. Gérôme took great pride in the American's skill, as if France had brought culture to the barbarians. Before long, however, the barbarians fought back. Eakins's attempts at recognition owed less and less to Gérôme's polish, and they ended in outrage.

The Gross Clinic, set at the Jefferson College of Medicine, has the trappings of grandeur. A figure cowers from the sight of blood, but the doctor knows no fear. As students cluster around the body, intent on his every word, he towers over the pyramid of men—at the center of the lecture hall, the large canvas, and its strongest light. His fierce eyes and outstretched surgical instrument offer a model of activity and strength. Eakins submitted the painting to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.

The committee refused the painting because of Dr. Gross's bloody hands, but the entire work shows an artist drawing blood. The students hide almost everything about the body but the scarlet incision. The doctor's weaker followers may shield their eyes, but the painting's audience has no such choice. Stranger still for so public a theme, outward signs of blood cannot capture the picture's inward mood. More remarkably still, that mood propels the painting's physical brutality even more onto the viewer.

That surgical lighting leaves half the doctor's face in shadow, a dark splotch that echoes the red on his hands. His harsh brow and loose white hair are akin to madness. The timid figure could well be cowering from him—or from the blinding light of Eakins's oils and his vision. Amid shadowy tiers above, a recording secretary might be ignoring it all as he bends over his pen. Like the painting itself, one senses, his true focus lies elsewhere, somewhere unspoken and unseen.

A touch oblivious himself, Eakins never expected rejection, but it was to last nearly thirty years, and it hurt. He wanted the stamp of tradition, even as he refused to compromise enough to fall within it. The conflict reminds me of Edouard Manet and, even more, Paul Cézanne, barely five years Eakins's senior. Cézanne, too, shares formal compositions and overworked surfaces that never quite add up. Both Eakins and Paul Cézanne painted their wives so plainly that the women resemble clay models of themselves. One forgets that Eakins married one of his most promising students.

If Gérôme taught attention to surfaces, Eakins learned only an obsession with a material world. Yet like a surgeon himself, the more frankly Eakins attends to things, the more he has to look within. And paradoxically, that only returns him to the emotional weight of the things themselves, including the thing called painting. He had found hints of that plainness in Spanish and French art, but the mix still sounds remarkably American.

Master stroke

Actually, the argument starts from the moment Eakins returns to America. A child at play feels positively surreal. A locomotive behind her looks too large for its distance, but also far too small for a train—until one remembers that one has seen a toy. With her head up against the picture plane, the girl, in turn, looks too big for a child of less than three. She peers down into shadows as she crawls, like a tiny, defiantly non-sexist version of Eakins's most famous portrait, The Thinker. One imagines a grown woman fallen to the ground from drink or in madness.

More typical, and a lot less heavy-handed, earlier rowing scenes show Eakins's clarity of composition and perspective—but never without physical and emotional tension. If the veiled conflict in his art suggests autobiography, he loved the sport, practiced it, and befriended its stars. The sense of physical exertion, crisp outdoor light, open water, and blue sky make these his most exhilarating works. Even so, he hardly lets himself off easy.

Although Eakins uses pencil traces, he does not often plot out a painting. Unusually, he makes oil sketches even for watercolors, and his few pencil drawings are just as loose. They seek the heft and carriage, not the outline. When Eakins adopts a firm line, it is to capture a line, like a sail stay. On the other hand, he cannot let light and color speak for themselves, like a Romantic still battling the Classicists. Brushstrokes follow the slow, certain dance of the waves. He is after real things, their potential for motion, and their still-unseen significance.

In one, a single rower takes a stroke. However, Eakins has chosen not mid-action, but the point of maximum extension. The arm picks up the strict horizontals of the boat beneath, ripples of water, and horizon line above. In another picture, the boat is just turning the mark—its stillest point but also a point of strenuous, sustained effort. Here, as in other paintings of more than one craft, lines of boats, rowers, masts, and shadows heighten the grid. An amazing sketch shows the dense web of perspective lines at a wild angle, like a computer model for architecture or cartography—all to capture the light reflected on the water.

That grid, over little more than wide-open water, suggests the obsessive drive of Eakins's art. Rowers seems locked in a self-created tension, a potential without certain release, and so do the paintings. (Hey, both rowers and the artist think in strokes.) Once again, seeing connects one to objects, but also to something less firm and clear. When one rower does get to rest, it could stand for a momentary respite after victory. Is his victory latent or transient? Must painting decide?

Late in his career, Eakins returns to sports, this time far from open spaces. In one work, a boxer crouches, as if ready to spring. Another boxer stands ready to pounce, held back only by the ref. Yet in reality a punch has left one in a daze, and the other has no idea whether the bout will continue. The crowd peers every which way, as if to add to the confusion. The most physical of activities ends without a sense of action. Boxing has become a synonym of entrapment.

The naked and the nude

Photography gives that much more play to Eakins's taut obsession with things and with his craft. It lets him place multiple figures precisely as they stood, even when he would lose nothing by moving them about. It also helps him collapse human exertion into a still moment. He takes multiple shots of action, like Eadweard Muybridge, but as much to catalog human behavior once and for all as to suggest elapsed time. He tries dozens of variations before fixing on one, sometimes to project it right onto canvas.

One should not think of photography today, with its seemingly perfect clarity and ability to capture the instant. Without a single document in support, David Hockney has imagined artists tracing from lenses and mirrors as far back as Jan van Eyck, when it would have taken a reflector, literally, larger than life. Technical mistakes aside, he overlooks something Eakins himself never forgets. Painting can be scientific, but seeing is never natural. Even then, early photographers borrow heavily from painting, and painting has a way of making it all strange once more. Photography does change art, but only by recreating the whole idea of seeing.

Eakins did not have the luxury of a snapshot. Subjects had to stand still for a good several seconds. Sometimes they could—and sometimes not. He could learn little, too, from the faded backgrounds that photography then produced, but he still understood the gravity of things. In fact, rather than allow him to trace compositions, photography frees him at last of his impulse toward cartography. By laying multiple projections onto discrete parts of a single canvas, he lets each form speak for itself. The landscapes that result fall apart, as if of their own weight, into a string of unconnected visions.

Photography also appealed to his interest in anatomy—and his honesty. He draws on sitters from beyond Philadelphia society, including a gripping profile of a black man. He has the courage to ask men, himself included, to undress in front of women. He has students, friends, and other models pose naked, and he poses right along with them. (He had pretty athletic legs for his age.) He was not to paint his first self-portrait for another twenty years.

Above all, photography extends, confronts, and complicates tradition. It helps Eakins work from the nude, like a proper (or gawking) academic, but it renders models as nothing more than naked men and women. Eakins does, too, when he begs for another rejection. He paints William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill. However, the light catches only the model and her cast-off clothing. It also cuts deeply into her outline, removing any hint of an ideal beauty.

Or maybe. The shadow, with again the weight of thought, seems only appropriate to the realm of sculpture and allegory. The painting lives in that realm, too, recovering them for a more deeply felt vision of beauty. Like the chair in the very foreground with her clothes, the painting keeps bare flesh at a distance and makes it that much more present. Eroticism and painting have equal debt to frankness and tradition, material reality and thought. Repression, it seems, has its own rewards.

Within reach

Critics like me come with nice theories, but only one problem—at times, fairly boring art. As so often in his career, Eakins comes off as one of art's "almosts." William Rush looks like a discarded version of a larger, brighter painting. A brown mist, covering most of the canvas, takes away any serious engagement with real life. Not even the nude gets all that interesting. She cannot connect either to Rush or to the odd shape left in shadow.

She does, however, give a sneak preview of Eakins's best work ever since the oarsmen. A decade later, in the 1890s, portraits fulfill her promise at last—in all their priggishness, propriety, moodiness, and sensuality. Maud Cook's cheeks take on the harshness of New England aristocracy and a fragile beauty all their own. In my favorite portrait, a woman's formal, red choker literally holds back bare flesh, while its intense color puts her almost within reach. In these years, Eakins also allows himself rich, maroon backgrounds that bring the whole work forward. The conflicting shades of red in skin, choker, dress, and near distance turn the canvas into a battleground.

Rush's nude model from the 1880s engages a popular theme in art today, gender bias and the assumption of a male viewer. That makes sense, too, for it speaks to the psychic battleground that makes Eakins soar. Certainly the portraits show an unconscious sexism. Women must dress in their evening clothes of the night before, but the only texture one remembers is of bare skin. Men have to settle for casual clothes, which take on a rough, practical finish. If those men and women ever met, there would be hell to pay.

Of course, Eakins invented neither erotic art nor the male perspective on desire. As a previous show failed to understand, frontal nudity alone cannot define his daring. Gérôme, for that matter, subjects one to enough chaste-looking harems to satisfy any number of martyrs. Eakins's distinction lies in both his directness and his indirection.

These men and women are familiars, not myth, with a life independent of the artist's—or viewer's—desires and fears. At the same time, they draw their physical presence from a deliberate absence. The painting makes one aware of what the painting, the sitter, and the viewer alike repress. The paradox brings Eakins near to Modernism. It also reflects his position within Philadelphia's class divisions and his academic pretensions.

No ideas but in things. Like the line from William Carlos Williams, it sounds quintessentially modern. And yet things themselves never lose their burden of ideas—just as the present, for Eakins, never frees itself from arguing over art's past. He just manages to do it, from the rowers to the end, as if spinning dangerous variations on nudity.

A final step

With the new century, Eakins did get recognition, and it seems to have taken the wind out of his work. The commissioned portraits may have begun as a chore, but they soon make the show more of a chore today as well. A second medical clinic grabs more overt action, with swaying heads all over, but not much else. Ashen paintings of the American West have much of Gérôme's dreary colonialism. The old yellows take over, right at the birth of Modernism, and they sink the work. The boxers look particularly lacking compared to the great rowing pictures.

The Philadelphia Museum and the Met do a real service, by representing Eakins's wide-ranging interest in photography. They show him as a sculptor as well, with some strikingly raw anatomical studies. They draw on collections that one might never see, such as the medical academies. In the second half, however, with plenty more photos—quite a few not even by Eakins—and fewer good works, the retrospective squanders the good will it created. Eakins sure has his share of the blame, but not all. The fame of The Thinker is already a bad sign.

As if to emphasize the curious selection, the Philadelphia Museum leaves aside a full room of portraits from his top years, off in the permanent collection. That room also holds stand-alone drawings, among the most exciting of Eakins's work. A guard puts in a plug for the rest as best he can before one exits. Perhaps the museum finds the medium too old-fashioned for the multimedia artist it envisions, and the long hallways of the retrospective's last stop only make things worse. The Met, despite a more dramatic placement of The Gross Clinic through an open doorway, gives the mistaken impression that Eakins just copied photographs mechanically. But viewers even in Philadelphia may leave thinking less of the artist.

Still, they will have seen how much Modernism, East Coast society, and traditional art alike repressed. They will have seen the major American artist between F. E. Church and the new century, rather a long stretch. They will have seen an explicitness, strange light, and ambiguous attachment to life that look forward to Edward Hopper. They will have seen a disturbing, sensual American realism that not even John Singer Sargent or James McNeill Whistler brought to society portraits. For they will have seen how, in Eakins's hands, American stories of repression give a startling inner world to objects—and an outer life to desire.

In his last decade, when the artist produced next to nothing, he returned to the sculptor in his studio. Rush comes out of the shadows to help the model forward, like the sculpture itself drawing life. At the very end, art and human nakedness come down from their pedestal and into the world at last.

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"Thomas Eakins: American Realist" ran at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through January 6, 2002. I revised this review after seeing it again at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, its third and final stop, where it ran from June 18 through September 15.


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