The Body Artist

The Body Artist

Two biographies of Thomas Eakins reveal the art world’s attitudes about the painter’s bodily obsessions: Was he a curious innocent, a brilliant anatomist or a dirty old man?

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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.

Back in the States, Eakins started his long, slow climb to controversial prominence as a different, more scientific, sort of realist painter. He enthusiastically employed the camera, both as a research and sketching tool and as a way of getting things “right” on the final canvas. Kirkpatrick sees Eakins’s pictorial technology as a sure index of greatness: “Just as the Renaissance masters had explored the devices of a new age, Eakins had availed himself of the revolutionary scientific advances of his generation–and along the way invented the art of realism in a new form.” That sounds fine until you come to Kirkpatrick’s own analysis of Eakins’s 1881 painting Singing a Pathetic Song, a portrait of academy music student Margaret Harrison performing an operatic aria. “Harrison’s image appears as if the artist has superimposed it on the scene,” Kirkpatrick says, “and the photographs Eakins employed for the painting suggest that this, in fact, was what he did…. The most likely explanation for Eakins’ uncharacteristic failure to realistically portray the scene was the novelty of working directly from photographs for modeling his principal subject.” Sidney Kirkpatrick, meet Sidney Kirkpatrick.

Aside from the occasional deleterious consequences of relying too much on photography, Eakins had other problems with his painting. John Singer Sargent could produce a decent picture in an afternoon and crank out a life-size portrait in as little as a week. Eakins would torture a painting for months, even years; with portraits, his subjects had to endure dozens of sittings. And despite the artist’s skill, dedication and diligent labor, many sitters refused or returned the finished product. Eakins, Kirkpatrick writes with gushy redundancy, “has the unique distinction of having had more of his paintings destroyed than any other great artist of modern times.” Right up through the 2001 Philadelphia Museum of Art retrospective, this was the prevailing view of Eakins: a blunt, no-nonsense perfectionist refusing to be hamstrung by Victorian phobias, pretentious patrons wanting to be made to look pretty or Sunday-at-the-museum audiences wanting to be made happy by idyllic landscapes with lots of flowers in them.

Adams, a professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, sees a darker personality behind it all. He writes: “At the heart of my investigation is a relatively simple notion: that Eakins’s paintings, which invariably portray somber or depressed people, and which often portray disturbing subjects, represent a tragic outlook that must have had some basis in his own life experience.” This rather reasonable-seeming premise–we live in an age where great artists are assumed to be miserable at bottom, with that misery showing up prominently in their art–sets Adams at odds with today’s conventional wisdom about Eakins (which, Adams notes, is a “complete inversion” of how the painter was generally regarded in his own time: as a gnarly, licentious–albeit talented–jerk whose peculiar aesthetic sense and extreme obstinacy caused too many of his pictures to turn out ugly). Adams debunks, in particular, Lloyd Goodrich, the eminent art historian and museum director (called “our Department of Truth, and our National Bureau of Standards,” by John Wilmerding, an almost equal luminary in the field) whose 1933 monograph created the flinty, visionary Eakins we’ve known until now. Goodrich’s interview notes, says Adams, “have become available since his death, and they reveal that he withheld any material that did not fit into a comfortable pattern of interpretation.”

Adams’s psychological indictment starts with Eakins’s overall attitude toward women (he thought them inferior, much preferred to hang around with men and actively tried to keep women in their place), makes a few calls on the artist’s paintings of women (which show them in unflattering lighting, heavy-limbed and weary and bathed in “melancholy and emotional trauma”) and proceeds to dissect Eakins’s relationships with members of the opposite sex. Eakins was engaged for several years, under pressure from his father, to a woman in whom he had no romantic interest. As for his marriage, even the Scott McClellan-ish Kirkpatrick quotes an Eakins confidant as saying that Eakins’s wife, Susan, “was kinda killed…[by Tom]. She would have been a great painter if she hadn’t married.” A former student named Lillian Hammitt went nuts believing that Eakins would leave his wife and marry her, an occurrence Adams attributes to the artist’s “clearly [being her] ‘Svengali'” and a “master of psychological control and masculine domination.” As for specific incidents, Adams offers up several as creepy as this: When Eakins visited a fellow artist who was painting a portrait of a young woman from Philadelphia, he went right into the next room and emerged from it nude. “I don’t know whether you ever saw a naked man before,” he said to the startled sitter. “I thought you might like to see one.”

Eakins Revealed is less a full-fledged biography than an exposé intended to correct prevailing opinion. Even so, Kirkpatrick, a non-art-historian “investigative journalist” with a biography of the American psychic Edgar Cayce under his belt, gives Adams’s book surprisingly short shrift. He notes in passing only that “biographer Henry Adams has suggested in his Freudian interpretation of Eakins” that the reason Eakins painted portraits of Catholic priests in their ecclesiastical robes was that he liked men in dresses. Indeed, Kirkpatrick’s book–a fairly serviceable and complete biography filled with, for instance, full accounts of Eakins’s upbringing and of Philadelphia back in the day–is almost militantly sunny. “The evidence, taken at face value,” he writes, “suggests that Eakins was a normal, well-adjusted, and dutiful son. Along with his siblings, he was also a dedicated caregiver.” “By all accounts,” he adds later, “married life thoroughly agreed with Eakins, as it did with his bride.”

A few early reviews having clued me in to Eakins Revealed‘s take on the painter, I read Revenge first, so as not to unfairly burden it with disproving Adams’s thesis. (Nasty is also more page-turny than nice.) But a name on Kirkpatrick’s dedication page caught my eye: “artist Mercedes Thurlbeck.” An unusual name, one an art critic like me should find familiar if the artist has anything going at all, careerwise. So I scoured the Internet. It turns out that Thurlbeck (who’s in her 20s) was a still photographer on the set of a film called LolliLove, from the infamous Troma studios. I also found that she is the daughter of Kirkpatrick’s wife, Nancy, a Cayce devotee who persuaded Kirkpatrick to write Edgar Cayce: An American Prophet and led the eventual Eakins biographer to become a devotee himself. The covers of Kirkpatrick’s two books are, incidentally, strikingly similar: a big face of the subject on the dust jacket, looking confidently toward the future.

I admit that this “uh-oh” moment was potentially prejudicial. But I was also aware of the possible consequence to this essay, and put it on hold until presented with corroborating evidence that Kirkpatrick leans toward hagiography. A strong indication arrived, however, in the “Contents” pages. Kirkpatrick’s chapter titles are either embarrassing clichés (“An Uncertain Future,” “Rough Around the Edges,” “The Artist and His Muse,” “The Road Less Traveled,” “Uncompromising Realism,” “The Unflinching Eye,” “Talk of the Town,” “Point of No Return” and “A League of His Own”) or such hilarious couplets as “Heads and Hands,” “Hikers and Hunters,” “Nudes and Prudes,” “Philanthropists and Philistines,” “Demons and Demigods” and “Pontiffs and Prelates.” Confirmation that puff pieces and awful writing often go hand in hand came in the text: “The nineteen-year-old Eakins had much to learn.” “Eakins wielded his brush with a hand as steady as the one Dr. Gross used to guide his scalpel.” And “Like a dam breaking, a deluge of unabashedly laudatory praise followed.”

In the end, your understanding of Eakins will come down to a variant on The New Yorker magazine’s old humorous filler item “Which Newspaper D’ya Read?” Do you believe the art history professor with vast scholarly knowledge and experience looking at art, who also has some professional axes to grind? Or do you hold with the ostensibly disinterested outsider, an experienced journalist who’s also in the thrall of a homegrown Nostradamus and writes like a People magazine reporter?

Kirkpatrick makes Eakins’s decision to pay for a Civil War exemption (a common, legal practice) a matter of conscience having to do with his being an only son overcoming his belief that a war to end slavery was certainly just. Adams downgrades the artist’s agonizing to his simply being under his father’s thumb.

“Eakins must naturally have been distraught,” Kirkpatrick says about the death of his nominal fiancée, Kathrin Crowell. “Eakins may well have been relieved when Kathrin died of meningitis at the age of twenty-eight,” counters Adams.

About Lillian Hammitt, Kirkpatrick says blandly that from other direct experiences with psychopathology “Eakins knew and recognized mental instability and was doing what he believed best for Hammitt.” In addition to his “Svengali” comment, Adams writes, “One of the most notable patterns of Eakins’s life is that he seems to have attracted and ‘collected’ people who were weak or psychologically vulnerable, and then to have preyed upon those weaknesses. Several of his students, including Lillian Hammitt, Ella Crowell [Kathrin’s sister, whose genitals Eakins probably touched under the guise of instruction in anatomy], Douglass Morgan Hall, and Benjamin Fox (who posed for Swimming) ended their lives in insanity.”

Kirkpatrick says that Eakins “did not have the slightest clue that his own assistants [including his star disciple, Thomas Anshutz] and their friends were the ringleaders of the efforts–not idle gossip but a true conspiracy–to have him dismissed” from the academy following the loincloth scandal. Adams says that Anshutz was a “modest, even-tempered” man, undriven by institutional ambition, who would not have taken the risk of trying to oust the then-powerful Eakins from the school.

And so on. Adams is the proverbial fanatical DA who could, to paraphrase the courtroom chestnut, indict a ham sandwich for sexual misconduct. If Kirkpatrick, on the other hand, had seen Eakins sitting in a minivan, exposing himself to young soccer players, he probably would have figured Eakins was just an assistant coach changing into his shorts. Think I’m exaggerating? Try this: “Another incident found Eakins painting a portrait of the buxom wife of a prominent businessman. He stepped away from his easel and poked his fingers into her lace bodice. ‘Feeling for bones,’ he blithely remarked.” This vignette is followed immediately by another, about Eakins’s causing a female patron to flee the room “when Eakins expressed his joy in having her model. ‘How beautiful an old woman’s skin is,’ he exclaimed. ‘All those wrinkles!'” Kirkpatrick’s clear intent is to pass off an obvious groping as merely part of Eakins’s forgetting his manners because he’s lost in his art.

How times change, and change again. In Eakins’s own day, a good portion of proper Philadelphia wanted him run out of town because of rumors about such unseemly behavior. Seventy years ago, Goodrich dealt with the same unpleasantries by simply covering them up. Thirty-five years ago, in the Age of Aquarius, Eakins–to the extent that he was thought about at all–was a groovy art professor who defied the fuddy-duddy administrators and let it all hang out. Now in the early twenty-first century, with its hyper-consciousness of anything remotely resembling sexual harassment, it’s a whole different ball game. Adams quotes the feminist art historian Jennifer Doyle:

With the cultural anxieties that swirl around sex and the workplace, not many would be inclined openly and unambivalently to support a project that involved, as did The Swimming Hole, a teacher spending an afternoon taking photographs of himself naked with students. Furthermore, how many of us can honestly say that we are sure enough of the boundary that protects student-teacher relationships to spend an afternoon naked with our students–and take pictures–and show them to our colleagues–and believe that we would keep our posts?

It’s hard to say whether Thomas Eakins would have been better or worse off today than he was in old-time Philadelphia. As a painter right now, he’d probably be headlining in a blue-chip New York gallery, outselling John Currin. As a teacher, he’d be a defrocked professor permanently blacklisted from even a minimum-wage adjunct position. But as a guy who obviously got his jollies by asking women to pose nude for him, and by taking off his clothes in front of other people, he’d likely be happy as a lark with the screen name “Phillyhotguy86,” sitting naked in front of his webcam, trolling the Internet for amateur models.

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