The great American realist painter Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) had a real jones for naked people. As a prominent teacher at the renowned Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he jettisoned classes in still life and composition in favor of yet more instruction in front of the nude model. On field trips with groups of male students, he took photographs of them posing, without clothes, against woodsy backdrops. On a couple of these outings, Eakins removed his own garments. And when a woman student couldn’t quite grasp what he was telling the class about pelvic movements, he promptly took her to his studio, dropped trou and demonstrated them. But what got Eakins into real trouble–bounced from the academy and viewed as even more of a pariah by polite Philadelphia–was removing the loincloth from a male model in the presence of female students in January 1886.
Was the artist merely a passionate pedagogue whose zealousness about the importance to art of anatomical expertise rendered him unfortunately oblivious to social convention? Or was Eakins indeed a deeply disturbed person? Henry Adams’s Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist argues, as it were, for the prosecution. He adds, to Eakins’s conspicuous interest in undressing and rear ends, suspicious attractions to family conflict, mental illness, incest (he was accused inconclusively of having a relationship with one of his sisters) and–this is America, remember–guns. But a new biography, Sidney Kirkpatrick’s The Revenge of Thomas Eakins, takes the side of the defendant: “Eakins’ frank approach to nudity…suggests two strong forces tugging within his personality: one was an innate, curious innocence, the other a socially fraught, nearly pathological desire to come to terms with the impulse that drove him…from the Jefferson Medical College to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.”
Middle-class life in Philadelphia in the mid-nineteenth century was, as in most large Eastern American cities, a dour, stratified, what-will-the-neighbors-say business. Benjamin Eakins (who pronounced his last name the way his Irish-immigrant father spelled it, Akens) was a high school teacher who moonlighted in real estate and a few other enterprises to keep his wife and four children comfortable. He wanted his younger son to move up a couple of rungs on the social ladder. Thomas Eakins complied as far as making a sincere but brief run at medical school, but a predilection for drawing–he was a schoolboy whiz at mechanical drafting–ultimately led him to art school at the academy. He did well enough to be able to treat himself, with his long-suffering father’s help, to the equivalent of a junior year abroad. Eakins landed in Paris in time for the 1867 Exposition Universelle, where the French fell in love with everything American–locomotives, chewing tobacco, peach cobbler and soda fountains–except American art. No disagreement from Eakins, who called it a “dismal failure.”
But Eakins, who was aesthetically constricted enough as a young man to think Delacroix a miserable painter, was no great shakes in France. “As a student in Paris,” writes Adams, “he had unusual difficulty learning to make competent paintings, and he left France abruptly, with no honors or awards, seemingly at a midpoint in his training.” Not that he didn’t try to live la vie artistique. Emily Sartain, a sort of girlfriend (these relationships were always fuzzy with Eakins), came to Paris with William Dean Howells and his family for a visit. Eakins and Sartain were walking through a park when some art-student pals accompanied by what they used to call “women of ill repute” walked by and said hello. Sartain was horrified and asked Eakins to promise never to employ such females as models. He refused–a matter of creative principle–and he and Sartain parted, making no plans to see each other again.