American Realism
241 pages

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American Realism


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241 pages

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Urban realism, snow-covered streets of New York, boxing matches, children on the banks of a river, the painters of the Ash Can School preferred realistic images. Their paintings are a true hymn to noise and sensations. This unconventional movement enabled the birth of a true national artistic identity which broke free from the establishment. The Ash Can School resolutely promoted the affirmation of the modernist current of American art. Edward Hopper, who was a student of Robert Henri, embraced the principles of this movement and brought them to another level.



Publié par
Date de parution 15 septembre 2015
Nombre de lectures 5
EAN13 9781783107674
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 2 Mo

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Text: Gerry Souter

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© Parkstone Press International, New York, USA

© Parkstone Press International, New York, USA
© Confidential Concepts, Worldwide, USA
Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
© Charles Burchfield
© Everett Shinn
© John Sloan Estate, Artists Rights Society, New York, USA
Art © Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
American Gothic, 1930 by Grant Wood
All rights reserved by the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
© Andrew Wyeth

No parts of this publication may be reproduced or adapted without the permission of the copyright holder, throughout the world. Unless otherwise specified, copyright on the works reproduced lies with the respective photographers. Despite intensive research, it has not always been possible to establish copyright ownership. Where this is the case, we would appreciate notification.

ISBN: 978-1-78310-767-4
Gerry Souter

American Realism

WINSLOW HOMER (1836-1910)
THOMAS EAKINS (1844-1916)
Robert Henri
Everett Shinn
George Luks
William Glackens
John Sloan
George Bellows
Summary of the Ashcan Artists
EDWARD HOPPER (1882-1967)
GRANT WOOD (1892-1942)
ANDREW WYETH (1917-2009)
Frederic Remington, Boat House at Ingleneuk, c. 1903-1907.
Oil on academy board, 30.5 x 45.7 cm .
Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, New York.


The concept of ‘Realism’ as applied to a style of art embraces too much with too little. You might as well try to define ‘Dance’ without looking at ballet, tap, jazz, clog or folk. It is true in art there is Cubism, Futurism, Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism and many more lesser ‘isms’ and each bears certain characteristics, or cleaves to certain constraints or expansions that define the style. Each of these styles has practitioners who themselves are defined by the results of their identification with the specific creative method. Each painter has also brought an individual contribution to the interpretation of the style. The key differences between these ‘isms’ and ‘Realism’ is time, place and state of mind.

A ‘Realist’ painter is the beneficiary of a legacy stretching back to the earliest cave paintings that describe the activities of our most primitive ancestors who ‘saw’ giant elk, mammoths, cave bears and their own humanoid brothers. They ‘saw’ the spears flying through the air, observed the graceful arch of the antelope’s neck and the hump of the buffalo’s back. They painted exactly what they saw, subjects standing still or in motion, in coloured clays mixed with animal fat and tallow. No one is sure if the result was pure journalism of observation or using magical suggestion to assure a successful hunt. The sophistication of interpretation wound its way through the centuries from the stylised propaganda scribed into the walls of tombs and temples to the sprawling epic of the Bayeux Tapestry documenting the Norman-french depredations on the shores of England. Religious faith was reinforced by depictions of stories from holy books such as the Bible , Qur’an , Bhagavad-Gita and the Analects of Confucius .

Realism has always dealt with the baggage carried by the interpreter of the scene. The practice of realistic painting produced an elitist class schooled in effects and techniques, and secret paint- and preservation-formulations, like alchemists granting eternal life to reality seen through their eyes and granting reality to scenes played out in their impassioned minds. Masters of technique became elevated in society and gathered together to protect their franchise with orders, academies and societies where membership was seen as a goal, an achievement, a sacred trust. To display their work or commission their skills bestowed a cachet, a symbol of piety, good taste and social responsibility.

Of course there were the malcontents: Dürer, Da Vinci, David, Rembrandt, Goya, Delacroix, Caravaggio; artists whose passion flowed from their brushes and etching needles and crayons to show there was more to realism than polished technique. When the American Colonies of the New World finally sought the trappings of civilisation after their Revolution and Westward Expansion, the Tripolitain War and the War of 1812 and the border wars with Mexico, both a native art and the arts of Europe began staking out new ground. All this civilisation arrived just in time for the birth of photography in the 1840s. The capturing of reflected light in an infinite scale of values preserved in silver halide crystals and fixed with hyposulphite forever democratised reality upside down and backwards on glass and paper, and held a mirror up to nature with the click of a mechanical shutter.
William Metcalf, Gloucester Harbour, 1895.
Oil on canvas, 66.4 x 74.3 cm .
Mead Art Museum, Amherst College,
Amherst, Massachusetts, gift of George D. Pratt.

And what did ‘true artists’ attempt to do with this brave new medium? Why, forced it to look like a painting, of course, and then hurried off to form orders, academies and societies and create rules of recognition for a ‘truly artistic’ photograph. The science and mechanics of photography originated in Europe, but its commercialisation, artistic pretension and ultimate creative potential were achieved in the United States, in the nation of immigrants who inherited the need to challenge the status quo. They passed along that need in their genes. The European wave of academic realism subsided at the hands of the nineteenth-century French Impressionists and tumbled into the larger-than-life theatricality and geographically diverse American scenes and lifestyles. Photography’s faithful translation of light and shadow into a reproducible image freed painters to pursue their imaginations. They could manipulate any of the elements: colour, line, perspective, placement, addition and subtraction, making the scene their reality. Realism as a monolithic, lock-step, strictly governed method of painterly visualisation shattered into nuances of interpretation.

Where you painted could make you a Regional Realist. What you painted might label you a Genre Realist, or who you painted classified your work as Portrait Realist – or maybe a Portrait Regionalist Realist if you painted Native Americans in the West, or sea captains on the East Coast. There were Realists who brushed the style of French Impressionism into every canvas and Academic Realists who dragged the dog-eared mechanics featured in Old World European salons into scenes of American life. Some Realists successfully stepped back and forth across the line between commercial illustration and fine art. Others took realistic subjects into the realms of surrealism or shaved the medium to such a fine point; the results of which challenged the photographic arts.
John Sloan, Gloucester Harbour, 1916.
Oil on canvas, 66 x 81.3 cm .
Syracuse University Art Collection, Syracuse, New York.

Of the variations cited, there are even further nuances that mock the concept of ‘American Realism’ as an all-embracing style. What remains are American Realist artists, each facing subject matter that is part of the fabric of the American scene. The result of their efforts is determined by the filtering of their perceptions through their individual intellects, skill sets, training, regional influences, ethnic influences and basic nurturing. If there is any binding together it is within the tradition of Realist Art in the United States, which accepts such a range from Winslow Homer’s poetic watercolours of the 1860s to the haunting minutiae of Andrew Wyeth and melancholy light of Edward Hopper in the 1950s and 1960s.

This book presents a cross-section of American Realist artists spanning more than one hundred years of art. It begins as some artists struggle with the influences of Europe, and other home-grown painters bring their nineteenth-century American scenes to life, and ends as today’s generation of Realist painters co-exist with American Modernism and absorb this new freedom into the latest incarnation of their art. The range of talent is exceptional, touching on the broadest interpretation of the American Realist artist. In examining this cross-section, we can better understand and appreciate the amazing diversity and the infinitely variable Realist styles.
Eastman Johnson, Woman in White Dress, c. 1875.
Oil on paper board, 56.8 x 35.6 cm .
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco,
California, gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III.


By the 1840s, the United States was still a work in progress. Its population had leaped 33 per cent from the previous decade to 17,063,353 with four states exceeding one million residents: New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia. Texas signed up for annexation in 1845 and the first immigrant wagon trains headed west over the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. In December of that same year, President James K. Polk told Congress it was the country’s “manifest destiny” to pursue expansion west and vigorously uphold the Monroe Doctrine.

These great events were just beginning to be communicated across the country by Samuel F.B. Morse’s telegraph, proven on 24 May 1844 with a message sent from Washington D.C. to Baltimore, Maryland that read, “What God hath wrought”. A somewhat less momentous event was taking place in a Boston studio as a twenty-year-old Eastman Johnson struggled to learn the mechanics of crayon and gum arabic in the art of stone lithography. This was journeyman work, a profession in the printing industry and his father had apprenticed him to the studio by to learn a useful trade.

Young Johnson was born in 1824, in Lovell, a small town near Maine’s western border, the last of eight children born to Mary Kimball Chandler to Phillip Carrigan Johnson. Following Eastman’s sisters, Harriet, Judith, Mary, Sarah, Nell and his brother Reuben, he was also well down the line from first-born, Commodore Phillip Carrigan Johnson Jr. As the family moved from Lovell to Fryeburg, a former frontier outpost in 1762, and to Augusta, Maine’s capital city on the Kennebec River, the patriarch Johnson climbed the ladder of success. From being a successful businessman he ascended to the post of Maine’s Secretary of State and eventually moved on up to influence in Washington D.C. as Chief Clerk of the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repair of the U.S. Navy. It wasn’t difficult to obtain an apprenticeship; Eastman’s gift for drawing and observation made the job a good fit.

At the age of twenty-one Eastman moved to Washington D.C. in 1845 and established himself as a portraitist, eventually producing images of such notables as orator Daniel Webster and Dolly Madison, wife of President James Madison. Moving on to Boston the following year, his subtle use of line and tone learned at the stone soon brought him portrait commissions such as the likeness of a youthful Charles Sumner commissioned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The famed poet gave Eastman’s career a considerable boost with requested drawings of Longfellow’s influential friends and family, including poet Nathaniel Hawthorne, Anne Longfellow Pierce, Charles Longfellow, Ernest Longfellow, Mary Longfellow Greenleaf and Cornelius Conway Felton, soon to be president of Harvard University. Johnson worked in Boston for three years, but he felt he needed more training in the fine arts. It was not until 1848 that he created his first oil painting, a portrait of his grandmother.

In 1849, Johnson travelled across the Atlantic to Germany and enrolled in the Düsseldorf Academy, an influential realist school created in the early nineteenth century. He was accepted into the studio of the American expatriate artist, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. While the school was noted for its painters who turned out realist landscape allegories and historical subjects, just before Johnson arrived many of its students had been politically involved in social protest, manning the barricades as part of the Burgwehr citizen army. The revolution of 1848-49 forced Frederick William IV to grant a constitution uniting the Prussian States into a single entity. Eastman joined a number of American artists who passed through this school, which at the time was more influential than anything happening in Paris. George Caleb Bingham, Worthington Whittredge, Richard Caton Woodville, William S. Haseltine, James M. Hart, and William Morris Hunt all passed through Düsseldorf as well as the painter of luminescent western landscapes, Albert Bierstadt.

While the academy offered considerable technical training, Johnson felt restricted by the pedagogy and in 1852 packed up his paints and brushes and toured Italy and France, finally ending up in The Hague in Holland. His goal there was to study seventeenth-century Dutch artists, specifically Rembrandt and that artist’s brilliant use of light and composition. His work was so well received that he was offered the post of court painter, which he refused. Johnson had come to a decision that realist art was not tied to populist allegories, drenching sentimentality or forced re-enactments of historical events. Painting could tell both simple and complex stories without bogus emotion or flights of fancy. Direct observation in the field, activities sketched from life, all these acquisitions could render the American lifestyle in the American landscape. Armed with Rembrandt’s methods of visualisation, the rigorous curricula of German technique and his own sensitivity to story telling, Eastman Johnson spent two months in academician Thomas Couture’s Paris studio, and in 1855 he departed for the United States. The American art scene that greeted his arrival was considerably different from when he had left just seven years previously. Daguerreotype salons had sprouted like mushrooms on a log – especially in Washington. The fashionable one-of-a-kind photographic portraits in their velvet and gutta-percha clamshell frames became the rage as carte de visite leave-behinds and commemorative gifts. Sadly, the faces that peered back were mostly severe in expression due to the often three-minute exposures, while the head was securely kept in place by a clamp. Even so, the market for crayon portraits had crashed. Still, his reputation and fine work kept him in portrait commissions in Cincinnati and Washington, and finally funded his studio when he settled in New York.

Another major change was Americans’ attitudes to art and its place in their society. In the 1840s everything European was considered the definition of good taste and enlightened sensibilities. Now, in the 1850s, Americans began to turn inward and seek their own identities in art and letters. The nation’s vistas were expanding and in the East and Midwest those who bought paintings wanted scenes of the exotic Far West. People who lived in teeming cities longed for idealised views of bucolic farm life and recreation in the forests and along country roads, images of simple lives led in the Deep South and even among the Plains Indians.
Eastman Johnson, The Hatch Family, c. 1870-1871.
Oil on canvas, 121.9 x 186.4 cm .
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
New York, gift of Frederic H. Hatch.
Eastman Johnson, Negro Life at the South, 1859.
Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 114.9 cm .
Robert L. Stuart Collection,
New York Historical Society, New York, New York.
Eastman Johnson, Corn Husking, 1860.
Oil on canvas, 67.3 x 76.8 cm .
Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse,
New York, gift of Andrew D. White.
Eastman Johnson, Cranberry Pickers, c. 1879.
Oil on pap er board, 57.1 x 67.9 cm . Private collection.

It was Johnson’s good luck to have his sister, Sarah, marry William Henry Newton, who took his bride up to property investments he had made in the upper Midwest. Johnson’s brother, Reuben, had also moved up north to Superior, Wisconsin and opened a sawmill. Having kin already established in that distant country motivated Johnson to journey into the wilderness armed with cash from his portrait sittings and a loan from his father to invest in land. The summers of 1856 and 1857 were spent working with brush and crayon around western Lake Superior and in a cabin he built on Pokegema Bay.

He enlisted the services of a guide, Stephen Boonga, a mixed-blood African-American and Ojibwe Native-American man, to help him build a canoe and paddle to the Apostle Islands and the cities of Duluth and Superior. In Grand Portage, Johnson made contact with the Ojibwe tribes and made a number of sketches in charcoal and oil. [1]

In 1859, Johnson reached back into his Düsseldorf training and created his first American genre painting titled Life in the South (aka: The Deep South, Negro Life at the South & Old Kentucky Home ). On close examination, he did not reach too far. The painting is largely a collection of portrait sittings grouped in story-suggesting clusters about a charmingly dilapidated barn and slave residence. Taken as a whole, it is quite sappy, but the portrayals of the courting couple, the slave children and their extended family members – even the white mistress watching the scene from a hole in the fence (or is she watching the courtship of the mulatto couple?) – have a homey sincerity. Whatever the level of sugar coating, the painting managed to please both the Southerners, who saw it as an idyllic representation, and the anti-slavery North, who read into it all the evils of that “peculiar institution”. If it was packed with sentiment, it was American sentiment and was good enough to get him elected to the National Design Academy of New York.

Johnson took his sketch pad with him to the Civil War, following the Union Army not unlike a modern photojournalist. The most famous outcome of this five-year sojourn was his oil painting, The Wounded Drummer Boy .

During the next twenty years, Eastman Johnson became a Regionalist Realist painter, keeping himself to the East Coast and creating his most memorable works. He settled into a routine of venturing back to boyhood haunts in Fryeburg, Maine and made regular summer visits to Nantucket. He married Elizabeth Buckley in 1869 and fathered a daughter, Ethel Eastman Johnson in 1870. Many of his most charming works are of his wife and child in and around their home.

Johnson recognised something in the East that gave him comfort and there is an undercurrent of contentment in all his genre paintings of this period of his work. When not traipsing off after the Army of the Potomac throughout the 1860s, he travelled to New England. After seeing up close the destruction of war, the comfortable semi-antiquity of his homeland must have come as a relief. Since so many young men were in uniform during the war years and many didn’t come back from the battles he was left with the elderly and women and young people who were not of conscription age as his subjects. Where no people were present in his pictures, the tools they used and the interiors that sheltered them showed use and degrees of decay. They lacked a swab of whitewash or a few stones in the wall or the hearth blackened dark with soot, or a cane chair seat needing a fresh weave.

One of his most successful genre paintings was Corn Husking , exhibited in 1861 at the National Academy of Design in New York. The show opened just three weeks before the bombardment of Fort Sumter and the start of the Civil War. No less than the 200,000 New Yorkers crowded into Union Square to support the Union cause, and Johnson had made his own pro-Union statement in this painting. Written on the barn door are the words “Lincoln and Hamlin” referring to Lincoln’s successful run for the presidency and his running mate from Maine, Hannibal Hamlin. New England had come out in strength for the Republican ticket during the election so the painting was as much a subtle political broadside as it was an example of fine art.

He never felt the need to fall back upon the historical ‘Down Easters’, the Puritans in knee britches or the old coaches that plied the roads. Except for his Old Stage Coach painting he sketched in pieces and then assembled in his studio. It depicts the ruin of stage coachwork without wheels or axles being reclaimed by the local vegetation and workings of the elements. But even this lamentable reminder of days past is rejuvenated by the shouts and whoops of children as they play around and upon the disintegrating shell. Boys whinny and gallop in place while drivers snap whips made of air and imagination and the girls peer out of the windows at the passing scene. All this action by the side of the road takes place under late afternoon sun and is so unforced and natural that it is impossible to imagine this captured moment was created in a studio from bits and pieces and assembled in Johnson’s mind.

All this rural hoopla fitted in with the trend that had citizens returning to their roots during and after the Civil War, paying homage to the old, uncomplicated days so prominent in imprecise memory. Books, plays, artwork all celebrated the ‘good old days’ unencumbered by the industrial revolution, crowded cities, smoke-belching steam locomotives, and the stink of a hundred backyard privies on a hot summer night. Coal gas hissing into the lamps in overstuffed apartments. The reek of crowds layered in Victorian fashion moving in clouds of scent to mask the odour of their unwashed bodies. The paintings promised open vistas, big spaces, dense forests and winding brooks, the warm dry smell of hay in a feed barn and the splashing rumble of a mill wheel in the river race.

Making use of his years studying Rembrandt’s use of light in etchings and oil paintings, Johnson infused his works with sophisticated views, particularly with the interiors. He evoked mood and the rough-hewn lives of Americans of all walks of life. He bestowed grace and charm on the most mundane subjects.

Buffalo Bill brought his Wild West travelling show to cities and towns after touring the capitals of Europe and performing before the Imperial Royals. But his enactments of cowboy and Indian mock battles and the skills of his bronco busters, sharpshooters and ropers lost relevance as the real West began to disappear. The land was still there, but railways, the telegraph and hordes of settlers transformed the face of it. What had been news stories of Custer’s Last Stand, the Battle of Wounded Knee, land and gold rushes became nostalgia and slipped from newspaper headlines to memories swapped on shady porches in the cool of the evening.

Genre paintings slipped from favour. Johnson fell back upon his portraits for income but, like the old men seated around the stove in the general store, he reached back into his own memories. He had, for instance, a great desire to produce a large canvas depicting the process of maple sugar boiling. Over the years he made a number of studies of this unique ‘Down East’ scene, but never completed the finished canvas as interest in nostalgia waned. His fame as a portrait artist never vanished and he was in constant demand. Even into his seventies, he remained active, documenting both his era and the images in his memory.

Of the series, Henry T. Tuckerman, Boston essayist and critic, explained Johnson’s ability to capture “Maine, of old… rare materials… becoming more rare and less picturesque as locomotive facilities reduce costume, dress, speech and even faces to a monotonous uniformity.” [2]

By 1880, Johnson focused more and more on his portrait work. Around him, the nation was changing rapidly as industry, transportation and communications evolved, making the crusty, dusty antiquity of Maine memories even less relevant. There were few artists still around who had begun their careers before the Civil War, and of that diminishing group, he remained in public favour. Right up until his death at the age of eighty-two on 5 April 1906, he was considered a popular pioneer for realism that reflected the American scene using Old World techniques, but filtered through the flint-sharp sensibilities of a true Yankee ‘Down Easter’.
Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves , c. 1862.
Oil on paper board, 55.8 x 66.4 cm . The Brooklyn Museum,
Brooklyn, New York, gift of Miss Gwendolyn O.L. Conkling.
Winslow Homer, Prisoners from the Front, 1866.
Oil on canvas, 61 x 96.5 cm . The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York, New York, gift of Mrs. Frank B. Porter.

WINSLOW HOMER (1836-1910)

Almost a generation behind Eastman Johnson, Winslow Homer, also a largely self-taught artist, carried forward Johnson’s gift of portraying the American scene and added a love of the sea to the rustic genre images. He was born on 24 February 1836 in Boston, Massachusetts to Henrietta Benson and Charles Savage Homer. Henrietta grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she learned the art of watercolour. She was an active amateur painter and went on to exhibit with her son at the Boston Art Association in the 1870s. [3] His mother became Winslow’s first teacher.

An even greater influence on his early art training was the legendary Boston romantic painter, Washington Allston (1779-1843). Though he made two trips to Europe, studying various salon painters including the British artist, Benjamin West, Allston became a leading figure in the early nineteenth-century Romantic Movement in America. His emphasis was on landscape, but he concentrated more on mood and emotion than observation of an actual scene. His skills also extended to writing and he produced poetry, novels and treatises on art. Of these, his philosophy ordained that “primary subjects” seen in the painting were supported by underlying “secondary subjects” that enforced the mood and had religious undertones inspired by the revelations of God.

Though Allston died when Homer was just seven years old, the presence of the Great Man was everywhere in the Boston-Cambridge neighbourhoods where he had painted and written. Poetic tributes, exhibitions of his works and publications of his lectures, edited by Richard Henry Dana Jr. – author of Two Years Before the Mast – created a virtual Allston cult. Homer was surrounded by Allston’s acolytes and could not have avoided the artist’s work and philosophies. Homer’s contemporaries and close associates who knew of Allston’s impact claimed they recognised the ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ subjects in Homer’s paintings and understood the ‘secret’ to the success of the works. To appreciate Allston’s romantic sensibilities, one of his poems follows.

O Art, high gift of Heaven! How oft defamed
When seeming praised! To most a craft that fits,
By dead, prescriptive Rule, the scattered bits
Of gathered knowledge; even so misnamed
By some who would invoke thee; but not so
By him,—the noble Tuscan—who gave birth
To forms unseen of man, unknown to Earth,
Now living habitants; he felt the glow
Of thy revealing touch, that brought to view
The invisible Idea; and he knew,
E’en by his inward sense, its form was true:
‘T was life to life responding,—highest truth!
So, through Elisha’s faith, the Hebrew Youth
Beheld the thin blue air to fiery chariots grow.

Washington Allston, Lectures & Poems, 1850.

At the age of nineteen in 1855, Homer was apprenticed to the Boston lithography shop of John Henry Bufford who had studied under New York’s George Endicott and Nathaniel Currier (soon to be partnered with James Merritt Ives) to find practical applications for his art.

He remained at Bufford’s for two years and then embarked as a freelance illustrator finding sketch work at Ballou’s Pictorial and Harpers Weekly . He opened a studio at the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City. Located at 51 West Tenth Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, the Studio Building was a virtual rabbit warren of artist studios that radiated out from a central domed gallery. Artists from all over the country came to the location and took rooms nearby, giving Greenwich Village its new and future reputation as a Bohemian arts centre.
Winslow Homer, Breezing Up (A Fair Wind), c. 1873-1876.
Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 97 cm . National Gallery of Art,
Washington, D.C., gift of the W. L. and May T. Mellon Foundation.

At Harpers, where he remained a frequent contributor for years, his sketches made in the field were carved into wood blocks for multiple printing. He also copied images imported from England so they could be used to illustrate stories. And then the largest story he would ever cover burst as artillery shells slammed into Fort Sumter and the American Civil War flashed to life.

Homer was attending classes at the National Academy of Design, studying under Frédéric Rondel, a landscape artist who had just joined the teaching staff. Harpers Weekly armed Homer with sketch pads and sent him off to join the Union Army of the Potomac in 1861. He remained, following the troops and botched campaigns of Major General George B. McClellan. He drew their camps on picket duty, playing cards between battles, and worked alongside photographers whose bulky glass plate cameras could not produce pictures of any troops in action. Their photographic prints had to be turned into steel engravings in order to be printed in newspapers or by Harpers . Most of his sketches differed greatly from the heroic work of Eastman Johnson who produced The Wounded Drummer Boy . Homer seemed more drawn to the homey non-action moments that happened between battles, as with Home Sweet Home showing two Union soldiers boiling water over a fire in an encampment. These intimate scenes became popular with Harpers’ readers, showing how their boys lived when they weren’t fighting or marching. Because of the war’s huge casualty totals, these images of men bonding on the battlefield were comforting.

While many of his drawings copied the stiff compositions of the photographers, he managed to capture some unique, journalistic images such as Sharpshooter on Picket Duty . This drawing shows a Union sniper aiming a rifled musket using a long telescopic gun sight. The new technology allowed marksmen to use these sights to make long range shots and kill enemy officers, harass artillery units and sink the morale of enemy troops. The name ‘sharpshooter’ referred to a specific Sharps breech-loading rifle that, when combined with the telescopic sight, became a deadly and feared weapon. Any snipers captured by opposing troops were usually shot as being godless, cold-blooded murderers. This drawing and another one, Prisoners from the Front, were turned into paintings in Homer’s studio after the war, resulting in his being elected a full academician.
Winslow Homer, The Signal of Distress , 1890.
Oil on canvas, 62 x 98 cm .
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

In 1867, he travelled to Paris where Prisoners from the Front was hung in the American section of the Paris World Exposition called the ‘Universal Exhibition’. As with the British Great Exposition of 1851, art was considered a secondary attraction when compared to steam engines, railway trains and mass-produced manufactured products and processes, plus exotic goods and cultures from distant lands. The Americans shipped over a tribe of Indians and their tepees that became a hit for the show. Excluded from the show were the ‘young naturalists’, Cézanne, Degas, Monet and Renoir, who set up their own exhibitions outside the Exposition. The hall devoted to art was small, requiring paintings be hung in rows up to the ceiling. Still, Homer managed to see a broad cross-section of European art from Impressionists to hoary academicians grinding out neo-classical allegories. The London Times wrote:
“In the exhibition palace, one wanted in particular, apart from landscape painting by Rousseau or Français, to see exotic art or images of history in the academic, neo-classicist style. In the event, the walls were mainly covered with works of the panel members, who included: Gérôme, Dupré, Bouguereau, Millet, Daubigny, Huet and Corot, who, other than was the case with Courbet, were each represented with between eight and fourteen paintings. Genre pictures were particularly popular and represented. Although only works were supposed to be exhibited which had been completed after 1 January 1855, the exhibition proved in the final analysis to be a retrospective of recognised artists. Art was, in its undecorated, crowded and uncomfortable presentation, one product among many, only an “agreeable accessoire”, as Charles Blanc, who was himself a panel member, expressed it in 1867 in the Le Temps newspaper [4]

According to the New York Times previewing the show, “The best American works from the best private galleries and studios have been cheerfully placed at their (the U.S. Government) disposition. A collection of the highest character will in consequence be exhibited, instead of the crudities of unknown hands.” [5] While Homer’s painting, Prisoners from the Front bears a striking resemblance to Courbet’s Bonjour Monsieur Courbet with a foreground group against the angled horizon and activity behind them, the Parisians admired it for its closeness in style to the sugary allegorical academician Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Homer stayed on in Paris for a year with his Boston chum, Albert Kelsey, sharing a flat. They were very close friends and had a photo taken that mocked the convention of wedding photography of the time with Kelsey standing behind the seated Homer with his hand on Homer’s shoulder. On the back of the photo, Kelsey wrote, Damion and Pythias, after the Greek lovers. This relationship and a subsequent sketch of Kelsey sitting naked on the back of a giant turtle combined with Homer’s male-dominated lifestyle suggests either an asexual or homosexual bent to his social life. Many of his contemporaries offered that he was “painfully shy” around women, which was not unusual considering his strong Congregationalist church upbringing, with his dominant mother providing his art training.

On the other hand, Homer was considered a man’s man by his male friends, hanging out, drinking and smoking in cafes until the wee hours, even professing to enjoy love affairs. He demonstrated his love of nature and the men who sailed the sea, hunted and farmed the land, his bonding with the soldiers he sketched during the war. And yet as he matured, he sought his own space and little or nothing to do with women except as candid subjects for his sketches and paintings. When he did show women they were strong, independent and happy with their own company as in Promenade on the Beach featuring two women arm and arm at sunset. He also demonstrated how harm can come to women in works such as To the Rescue ; a brooding barren, colourless landscape that appears to show two women being pursued by a man with a rope noose. All the Gay and Golden Weather is an engraving produced in 1869 that shows distance and eroded communications between couples. Apparently Homer had little faith in the institution of marriage.
Winslow Homer, Rocky Coast and Gulls, 1869.
Oil on canvas, 41.3 x 71.4 cm . Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, Massachusetts, bequest of Grenville H. Norcross.
Winslow Homer, Summer Storm, 1904.
Oil on canvas, 61.6 x 76.9 cm .
The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute,
Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Winslow Homer, Watching the Brakers, 1891.
Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 101.6 cm .
Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Winslow Homer, Moonlight, 1874.
Watercolour and gouache on paper, 35.6 x 50.8 cm .
The Arkell Museum, Canajoharie, New York.

However, during the 1870s some of the homosexual suspicions were dispelled by an apparent romance that brewed up between Homer and a young amateur artist, Helena de Kay. The relationship began shortly after he returned from his two-year sojourn in Paris. She was a student at the Women’s Art School at the Cooper Union in New York. He likely made her acquaintance through her brother Charles, who occupied Homer’s studio during the artist’s Paris trip. When they met is not clear, but he painted The Bridle Path in 1868 and the resemblance between the rider and Helena is striking and was recognised by several friends.

Seven letters written by Homer to Helena exist and they indicate more than a passing interest or platonic friendship: “Miss Helena, if you would like to see a large drawing on wood, and will come to my studio on Monday or Tuesday, I shall have a chance to see you. Why can’t you make some designs and let me send them to Harpers for you, they will gladly take anything fresh. And I will see that you draw them on the block all right.”

Sadly, the “Come up and see my block of wood” ploy failed to work and Miss Helena demurred. Winslow’s letters then took on a really needy tone, but all to no avail: “Dear Miss Helena, You know you were to let me know when it would be agreeable for me to call at your studio. Having no word from you I suppose you have made other arrangements.” Still later, his note became an entreaty, “My work this winter will be good or very bad. The good work will depend on your coming to see me once a month – at least – Is this asking too much? Truly yours, Winslow Homer.” [6]

But the lady wanted nothing to do with him, so the door clanged shut on future amorous pursuits and he retreated to the disreputable collection of the finest illustrators in New York, the Tile Club, and wallowed in manly camaraderie. The club met frequently to debate art, swap ideas and plan outings to paint. Its membership included such notables as William Merritt Chase, Augustus Saint Gaudens and Arthur Quartley. Homer endured the nickname ‘The Obtuse Bard’.

With a possible eye on the success of Eastman Johnson, during the 1870s Winslow Homer plunged into a series of genre paintings, choosing, like Johnson, to observe the ordinary lives of common people. He granted elegance to the most basic of pursuits. Considering the level of his skills, this choice of less than uplifting subjects confounded both his champions and critics. In 1872, his painting Snap the Whip was displayed in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It shows a line of shabbily dressed boys playing a game, running and tumbling at full speed in an open field. Behind them are an equally shabby barn and a diagonal horizon of two intersecting hills that complements the diminishing line of boys as they run across the width of the painting. Author and social critic Henry James wrote of Homer: “We frankly confess that we detest his subjects... he has chosen the least pictorial range of scenery and civilisation; he has resolutely treated them as if they were pictorial... and, to reward his audacity, he has incontestably succeeded.”

It was also in the 1870s that Homer took up watercolours seriously and for the rest of his days rarely went into the field without his water-based paints and brushes. He explored the games and pensive moments of children and young women, perfecting his watercolour technique for what would later become his signature works in the medium.

Today, through the use of x-rays, the fluorescence spectrometer, infrared micro spectrophotometer and the Raman laser microscope, a team at the Chicago Art Institute has revealed the secrets of Homer’s seemingly casual approach to watercolour. The medium does not usually allow many changes once committed to the paper, but Homer planned his paintings very carefully, drawing every feature in pencil before adding colour. Even after the colour was on the page, he used sandpaper to create hazy skies and fog effects. A sharp knife blade scraped away pigment to reduce intensity and a wet brush applied to already dried pigment created foam on waves and surf at the shore.
Winslow Homer, Two Figures by the Sea , 1882.
Oil on canvas, 50.2 x 88.9 cm .
Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado.

Watercolour is subject to fading over the years and some of his paintings have lost degrees of colour where the originals held tints of sunset orange that added to the overall atmosphere and fading blues have been replaced by bald skies. Some of this fading is due to the use of ‘fugitive’ pigments. Many artists have been guilty of seeing the immediate effect of a colour without a thought about its longevity. Homer employed some colours that, over time, have shifted drastically from the original, or have disappeared altogether. Among these are a colour discovered in antiquity by the ancient Romans and Aztecs called ‘Carmine Red’. It is made of the dried crushed husks of the cochineal bug that lives in colonies on the pads of prickly pear cacti and is cultivated in Mexico and India. It must be mixed with tin oxide to become permanent in fibres. Another was ‘Indian Yellow’, actually created from magnesium euxanthate – the magnesium salt of euxanthic acid, which is the chemical name for the urine of cows that have been fed mangoes. [7]

He did not baulk at making changes in compositions to enhance the story. In the painting After the Hurricane , which shows a man stretched out on the beach amid the wreckage of his small boat, Homer’s original concept had the man’s outstretched arm in the air. X-rays show he overdrew that idea, laying the arm on the sand and leaving it up to the viewer to decide whether the man was dead or not. [8]
Winslow Homer, Rocky Coast, 1883-1900.
Oil on canvas, 35.6 x 86.9 cm . Wadsworth Atheneum
Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.

Winslow Homer was a meticulous planner when executing his paintings, but watercolours held another appeal to his creativity. He could work more quickly and increase his production, thereby adding to his income. He also keenly observed the work of other artists, especially after his trip to Paris and exposure to the upstart French Impressionists. His palette lightened considerably and he became one of America’s first ‘modernist’ painters.

Another curious fact has arisen lately concerning this 1870s-80s period of his genre painting. The watercolour Reading, done in 1874 of a fair-haired girl in a dress stretched out the full length of the picture reading a book is in fact a boy hired by Homer to play the part of a girl. This discovery led to similar instances where Winslow Homer substituted boy models for girls. Of course this returns to the matter of his sexual orientation, or did he just feel more comfortable negotiating rates with a boy than a girl?
Did his thwarted relationship with Helena de Kay drive a nail into his further dealings with women – except as observed for a sketch – as subjects? Is that the reason many of his later portraits of young women show pensive, unsure, sad faces? Most women are painted alone or with another woman – but almost never with a man. Does this alienation from women – according to Allston’s teachings – represent a ‘secondary’ subject showing through the ‘primary’ image?

Homer decided to leave for the British Isles in 1881. He visited the British Museum and studied the Elgin Marbles stolen from the Greek Parthenon. He pondered the romanticism of Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Edward Burne-Jones and from these studies changed his style to more painterly, dramatic images. He had accumulated all the tools he needed over the years and now shut off his previous society and locked himself into his work. He settled in the coastal fishing village of Cullercoats in Northumberland on the North Sea where the River Tyne empties its currents.

On these shores he documented the fishermen’s daily struggles with the sea and devoured the bleak vistas and salt-scoured rocky coves, the deep rolling combers of the pitiless North Sea. His study of Japanese prints in the 1860s now offered up unusual compositions that placed man at the mercy of the elements. He sought out the families of the fishermen and their hard life, waiting on the beach as their men searched for the great living shoals of fish.

What he found at the edge of the North Sea he brought home with him in 1882 when he moved to a house in Prout’s Neck, Maine, a tide-blasted promontory that thrusts out into the Atlantic. There, he continued to explore with his watercolours, sketchbooks and oils.

Homer’s admiration for the men who went to sea is obvious in his watercolours of their harrowing occupation and the skills needed to survive out on the Grand Banks.

When winter arrived, Homer departed to Florida, Cuba and the Bahamas to paint the native fishermen in their small boats. During these trips, he often was accompanied by his father. Besides the sea, the outdoors attracted his attention. He loved roughing it in the woods and found pleasure in the company of trappers and other woodsmen who spent their lives in direct contact with nature.

Often, he made summer trips up to Essex County, New York and what appeared to be a boarding house in a clearing deep in the woods. This was the North Woods Club of which he became a member in the 1880s. Many members built cottages on the property and the hearty life coupled with rough and sturdy men appealed to Homer. He spent much time tramping about the Adirondacks, fishing, hunting, and relaxing in what became the club house. He painted the men, the forest and the women who ran most of the local boarding houses and camps. He also travelled up into Canada for similar subject matter.

The wilderness seemed to have a calming effect on Homer. His cronies in New York would not have recognised their hail-fellow-well-met carouser with a short fuse. Among the woodsmen and Adirondack residents he was quiet, shy, and capable in woodcraft. He painted images of them and listened to their stories.

He shared their adventures and eventually moved among them as an equal rather than a tourist. The bitter recluse, often reported by people who visited his Prout’s Neck home and studio unannounced or seeking interview, vanished in the great forest. [9]

Finally, at the age of seventy-four he visited the North Woods Club in June 1910. Knowing he was mortally ill, he wanted to experience the serenity and power of the unspoiled wilderness one last time. He was attended by his friend and live-in servant, an African-American named Lewis Wright who had lived with Homer since 1895. They stayed for ten days and then returned to his old rambling house at Prout’s Neck in Scarborough, Maine. His visits to the Adirondack woods had resulted in some well-designed magazine illustrations, fourteen oil paintings and roughly one hundred watercolours. He worked with his watercolours right up to the end because he wanted no unfinished work left behind to be ‘completed’ by some hack with his, Homer’s, name on it. On 29 September, 1910, he died with one painting still on his easel. Shooting the Rapids, Saguenay River remains unfinished. He was laid to rest at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had achieved fame and success in his lifetime by his own efforts. He was largely self-taught and spoke a language with his oils and watercolours that still resonates with modern viewers. He was a complex and very private man who drained life to the bottom of the cup – and up-ended the cup when he was finished.
Winslow Homer, Coast in Winter, 1892.
Oil on canvas, 72.4 x 122.6 cm .
Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts.
Thomas Eakins, The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull), 1871. Oil on canvas, 81.9 x 117.5 cm . The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York, New York, the Alfred N. Punnett
Endowment Fund and George D. Pratt gift.

THOMAS EAKINS (1844-1916)

Thomas Eakins was a brilliant artist, but a failed human being. He brought the realism skills of the European salon painter to the American scene, but left behind the scattered detritus of a rather cruel and sordid lifestyle. He had a gift for technique and capturing emotion on canvas, but some of the emotions he captured were the result of his reclusive and demanding personality. On the one hand, his contemporary cronies and colleagues thought him a fine fellow, if a bit overbearing and driven. The personal side of his relationships with women and relatives and many of the people he painted was littered with sorrow, suicides and madness. Despite the dualism of his nature, he emerges as one of the most influential and important American Realist artists of his era.

Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins (pronounced “Ache-ins”) was born on 25 July 1844 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which eventually became his sole base of operations. He was a painter, photographer and sculptor. His parents were his Dutch-English mother, Caroline Cowperthwait and Benjamin Eakins of Scots-Irish ancestry. His father was the son of a weaver and took up calligraphy and the art of fine copperplate writing. He moved from Valley Forge to Philadelphia to pursue that trade. Thomas was their first child and by the age of twelve he admired the exactitude and precision required to produce calligraphic script and printing. This early exposure to careful planning and diagramming images stayed with him and became an important part of his creative method.

His love of the physical sports he later painted, rowing, ice skating, swimming, wrestling, sailing, and gymnastics also began in his youth. His academic life started in Philadelphia’s Central High School, the finest school in the area for applied sciences and both practical and fine art. Eakins maintained his consistency by settling into mechanical drawing. In his late teens, he shifted to the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts to study drawing and anatomy and then expanded his anatomical studies at the Jefferson Medical College from 1864-65. Though he started out following his father into calligraphy and becoming a ‘writing master’, his studies in anatomy had motivated him towards medicine and surgery. The quality of his drawing, however, earned him a trip to Paris to join the classes of the classic salon academician and ‘Orientalist’ painter, Jean-Léon Gérôme.

A superb technician, Gérôme was one of three painters allowed by the Emperor Napoleon to open a Paris atelier with sixteen selected students under the reorganised École de Paris in 1864. At that time, in order to exhibit at the salons where patrons made their purchases, membership of either the École or Salon de Paris was mandatory. Gérôme was an ‘historical genre’ painter given to the romance of historical anecdotal works and costumed models that were more mannequins for the costumes and props than character studies. The fold of a silk dressing gown on a bare-breasted young lady, or the realistic curl of smoke from an exotic hookah pipe, were as prized for commercial success as the emotional content of the picture’s theme. The training in these effects as well as the chemical properties of the paints and endless drawing from plaster casts was rigorous.

Eakins eventually moved on to the atelier of Léon Bonnat, whose pupils also included Gustave Caillebotte, Georges Braque, Aloysius O’Kelly, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Bonnat had a love for the anatomical precision of da Vinci and Ingres, which resulted in works of exceptional craft and technique, but lacking in imagination. Eakins made the most of his own anatomical studies in Bonnat’s classes. His Paris schooling also included classes at L’École des Beaux-Arts, which having had its ties to the French government cut in 1863 offered painting, sculpture and architecture to a broad, more diverse cross-section of artists. Some of those who had classes there included Géricault, Degas, Delacroix, Fragonard, Ingres, Monet, Moreau, Renoir, Seurat and Sisley.
Thomas Eakins, Starting Out After Rail , 1874.
Oil on canvas, 61.6 x 50.5 cm .
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts,
The Hayden Collection – Charles Henry Hayden Fund.
Thomas Eakins, John Biglin in a Single Scull, c. 1873-1874.
Oil on canvas, 61.9 x 40.6 cm . Yale University
Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.

Eakins chose to ignore the radical Impressionists, but he also turned away from the ponderous French academicians such as Gérôme and Bonnat. In a letter to his father in 1868 that predicted some of his future difficulties, he wrote:
“She [the female nude] is the most beautiful thing there is in the world except a naked man, but I never yet saw a study of one exhibited... It would be a godsend to see a fine man model painted in the studio with the bare walls, alongside of the smiling smirking goddesses of waxy complexion amidst the delicious arsenic green trees and gentle wax flowers & purling streams running melodious up and down the hills, especially up. I hate affectation.” [10]

Truth and beauty – in the form of the nude – became almost inseparable to him as he learned to render flesh and anatomy with great precision. This proclivity for wedding the two concepts raised its head a number of times in socially unacceptable (in nineteenth-century terms) events during his career.

From Paris, he travelled to Germany, Switzerland and Italy, ending up in Spain to study the realism of Velázquez and Jusepe de Ribera in the Prado. While there he tried his hand at a large canvas, A Street Scene in Seville. The painting of three street performers displays at once Eakins’ independence of mind by depicting two of the performers playing the horn and drum sitting in the shade of a scarred stucco wall while the young girl dancer stands forward in the sun on the brick street. The sun strikes her white dress and barely glances off her accompanists. His use of light and shadow gives the picture a captured immediacy of a quick photographic visualisation – another prediction of things to come.

His tour of Europe and subsequent studies seemed to fix his artist style in amber as he tossed aside the works of the Old Masters in a letter to his sister Frances: “I went next to see the picture galleries. There must have been half a mile of them, and I walked all the way from one end to the other, and I never in my life saw such funny old pictures. I’m sure my taste has much improved, and to show, I’ll make a point never to look hereafter on American Art except with disdain.” [11]

Having already dismissed the Impressionists Monet, Degas, Seurat and Renoir and the growing ‘modern’ movement, all that were left were the academicians: Gustave Doré, Ernest Messonier, Thomas Couture and his teachers, Gérôme and Bonnat. From them he had amassed an impressive arsenal of flashy techniques and a definite aversion to their commercial success with historic and romantic anecdotes. Style wise, he had gleaned from Velázquez a love of the Baroque.

This seventeenth-century art form had dealt primarily with religious works, but populist paintings using ordinary people – much like the Russian icons showing plain villagers engaging in traditional religious ceremonies – appeared from the likes of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and Diego Velázquez. Eakins might have seen Dinner at Emmaus at the Prado, which shows a serving girl gathering dishware that would be used in Christ’s Last Supper . The artist’s choice of painting a serving girl instead of the gathering disciples in the next room carries the ring of truth and brings the ordinary person closer to the religious event. Velázquez’ use of chiaroscuro and the window light touching the girl’s cap, pots and jugs strengthens the realism and reinforces the populist inclusion. This Baroque interpretation tapped into a trend showing up in American art that Eakins discovered when he packed his bags and returned in July 1870. But in Eakins’ hands, the Baroque of the seventeenth century and fidelity to the observed or imagined scene created by Velázquez would take on a definite American character.
“I shall seek to achieve my broad effect from the very beginning,” he declared . [12]
Thomas Eakins, The Swimming Hole, c. 1884-1885.
Oil on canvas, 69.8 x 92.7 cm .
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
Thomas Eakins, Between Rounds, c. 1898-1899.
Oil on canvas, 127.3 x 101.3 cm .
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania, gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins
and Miss Mary Adeline Williams.

Eakins retuned to Philadelphia and opened a studio on Mount Vernon Street. The location was only a short distance from the three-storey brick home his father had built at 1729 Mount Vernon Street, a tall narrow, deep building that housed a warren of rooms and curiously-placed stairways that became symbolic of the lives that were lived out beneath its roof. Allowing for brief sojourns, the structure became his anchor, refuge and claustrophobic dominion for the rest of his life. The house had a constantly shifting population including friends, cousins, nieces and nephews, wives and husbands, servants and babies. The world was kept out behind closed shutters summer and winter. Heat came from fireplaces and there was no plumbing, so water for all uses had to come from a hand pump in the back yard. Walls were painted in dark chocolate shades and decoration followed the usual chaotic Victorian pattern of overstuffed pieces, drapes and brasses needing a good polish. The air was musty, warm and rank with the smells of bodies, bedclothes, cooking, gas from lighting fixtures, wood ash and the lingering piquant scent from under-bed porcelain ‘thunder-jugs’ used in the night rather than make a trip over cold floors to the privy. Add to this a small zoo of animals: Bobby the monkey, dogs and at least one cat, all scampering and thrashing up and down stairs, in and out of rooms with their human internee counterparts. [13]

Eakins began his assault on fame right away with his painting Max Schmitt on a Single Scull – a man bare to the waist sitting at the oars in long narrow racing scull boat on a bend of the Schuylkill River. He looks back at the viewer as though a photographer had just hollered across, “Smile!” He is down river from a Roman-style stone-arched lift-bridge. Sports intrigued the artist and he went on to explore rowing with a series of paintings on the subject. True to his academic roots, Eakins produced a number of perspective plans, studies and sketches prior to execution of the oil. The final picture had the feeling of not being seen as a piece, but assembled from many different observations. This practice became an immutable standard. He went beyond the empty detail-saturated decorations of the academic realists to the application of their skills plus his own knowledge derived from meticulous observation. In exercising this conglomeration of observations and details, he did what good writers attempt – he edited out what was unimportant. As Ernest Hemingway once said of his craft, “What you leave out is as important as what goes on the page.”

A watercolour titled The Sculler became his first sale in 1874 and critics who saw his assembled rowers were unanimous in their praise. His friend and fellow painter Earl Shinn introduced Eakins to the public in the magazine Nation in 1874 when he wrote: “Some remarkably original and studious boating scenes were shown by Thomas Eakins, a new exhibitor, of whom we learn that he is a realist, an anatomist and mathematician; that his perspectives, even of waves and ripples, are protracted according to strict science....”

That same year also heralded his engagement to Katherin Crowell, the sister of Will Crowell, who was married to Eakins’ sister, Frances. The ‘engagement’ lasted from 1874 to 1879 and Eakins felt no obligation to consummate the relationship. It is suggested that the young woman was pressed upon him by his father, the family patriarch. In any case, she died of meningitis in 1879 leaving Eakins free to select and marry an up-and-coming artist, Susan McDowell, in 1884. [14] She eventually gave up her art career to clean house for Eakins and the live-in menagerie. His idea of marriage, it turned out, was not a love match, but the need for a healthy woman to breed and bear his children.

The year following his engagement to Katherin Crowell, he painted the work that is today considered the pinnacle of his career, The Gross Clinic . It is a large oil showing the removal of a dead piece of bone from an anaesthetised man by a number of doctors in dark suits with blood on their white shirt cuffs in the operating theatre presided over by Doctor Samuel Gross. In the background, the wife of the man under the knife cowers in horror with her face away from the action and her hands in claw-like reaction. By today’s standards it is a mild enough scene, but in Victorian Philadelphia, those red gobbets of blood on the surgeon’s fingers and the scalpel blade caused revulsion. Dr. Gross, a dignified gentleman, is spotlighted with a deeply shaded face, his glowing dome of a forehead surrounded by a frizz of unruly grey hair, his mouth an unfeeling slit dragged down at the corners. Today, the painting is riveting and dynamic as well as heaped with Freudian pronouncements concerning Eakins and his relationship with his domineering father. In 1875, nobody wanted the thing, but it finally sold for $200. Society retreated from the artist as a wave draws back into the sea.

Following the cool reception of The Gross Clinic , Eakins entered the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts as a teacher. He rose to the position of salaried professor in 1878 and was named a director in 1882. To his students he brought refreshing if controversial teaching methods. Harking back to his own rigorous academic studies, he banned sketching from dusty antique casts – the standard of the time – and following a brief introduction to charcoal sketching, his students plunged directly into painting in colour. At this time, he introduced photography as an artist’s aid.

Photography had arrived from M. Daguerre in France about the same time Eakins was born. By the 1880s, it had been refined from a slow chemical-optical nightmare into a common hobby and documentation tool. Thanks to Richard Leach Maddox, photographs were made on a dry glass plate coated with silver bromide suspended in gelatin – negatives were no longer made on freshly coated wet plates that had to be developed immediately after exposure. This development allowed for portable full (20.3 x 25.4 centimetres), half (12.7 x 17.8 centimetres) and quarter (10.2 x 12.7 centimetres) plate cameras to be used by anyone. Film was exposed in plate holders by the lens and shutter to be developed later in a darkroom lit by a dim ruby-red lamp. Eakins obtained his first camera and took his first photograph in 1880. He also discovered the photographic motion studies of Edward Muybridge. Using multiple cameras firing in sequence, the flying legs of a galloping horse or the muscular arc of a pole-vaulting man were studied to see how the anatomy functioned. Eakins was enthralled and began using photos in his work and his classes.

Photographs allowed Eakins to continue his practice of assembling a painting from many different sketches and studies, but with greater precision due to the photo’s detail. From his collection of more than 800 photos, many were used to add elements to paintings by tracing the captured action and transferring the pencil tracing on see-through paper with a rubbing on the paper’s opposite side. His photographing of nude figures in his classroom was usually done in the presence of a chaperone if young women were involved. He photographed his wife and his nieces who frequently scurried about the house naked and continually pestered female relatives to undress and pose. No other artist of his time made such a broad use of photography in his work and studies. Their constant display in his classroom probably had something to do with his later difficulties with the Philadelphia Academy. [15]

This broad-based acceptance extended to the students accepted for his training. He did not distinguish between fine art and practical arts. He welcomed illustrators, lithographers, decorators and other applied artists as long as they took their work seriously. This ‘serious’ approach to art included joining in his appreciation of the nude figure. His classes included both male and female students and they viewed a constant parade of nude models in this era when a glimpse of a female ankle was considered scandalous. Eakins also delighted in leading his male students out to remote locations where everyone disrobed – including Eakins – and cavorted in sports and games or simple contemplation while sketches or photographs were made for future reference.

In one instance, he talked a sixteen-year-old boy into climbing up to the Eakins’ house rooftop and posing nude, save for a loincloth, on a cross for the painting Crucifixion . In this work, Eakins managed to show the event, a young man dying in the sun, minus any religious overtones. The neighbours were sure the body was a corpse.

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