Pleasure out of Desperation

Thomas Eakins, yearning for the ideal in a materialistic age

Portrait: The Life of Thomas Eakins by William S. McFeely, W. W. Norton, $26.95

In the spring of 1887 Thomas Eakins, 42 years old, met Walt Whitman face-to-face at the Good Gray Poet’s home in Camden, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Eakins’s hometown. Shrewd and generous, the poet immediately sized up the painter, 25 years his junior: “careless, negligent, indifferent, quiet: you would not say retiring, but amounting to that.” And he liked the younger man. “I never . . . knew [but] one artist,” Whitman later said, “and that’s Tom Eakins, who could resist the temptation to see what they think ought to be, rather than what is.”

That Eakins was a portrait painter of brutal realism yearning, Whitman-like, “for something that reached beyond comfort and progress,” a kind of empyrean ideal unfettered by the materialism of modern life, is the central conceit of William S. McFeely’s succinct Portrait: The Life of Thomas Eakins. McFeely, Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer of Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Douglass, takes a page from F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance, with its brilliant comparison of Eakins and Whitman, to sketch Eakins as a transcendentalist fellow traveler, humanely attempting to represent in art a vision of individual freedom that included, without apology, the corporeal and the sensual. Like Emerson and Melville, Eakins was, according to McFeely, “one of the nineteenth century’s remarkable seekers.”

Born in Philadelphia in 1844, Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins was the eldest child of a calligrapher who invested wisely (no one knows in what, though McFeely speculates that it was in real estate or railroads), and provided amply for his only son. He financed, for example, the young man’s trip, de rigueur, to Paris in 1866, where Eakins managed to study with the popular academic painter, Jean-Léon Gérôme at the hallowed Écoles des Beaux-Arts, and to Spain, where he was bowled over by the paintings of Diego Velázquez. Before that, Eakins had attended Philadelphia’s top-ranked Central High School, taken anatomy courses at the Jefferson Medical College, and, during the Civil War, studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. But during the war years, Eakins dropped out of sight. “It is difficult for an American historian to imagine nothing happening between 1861 and 1865,” McFeely admits, “but for this story I may have to. I am not the first writer to despair at finding anything beyond bits and scraps and conjectures about what Thomas Eakins was up to between the age of seventeen and twenty-one.”

Had Eakins paid for a substitute to take his place on the battlefield, as the sons of many affluent families did? If so, how did he feel about it? McFeely, a historian, confronts the imponderables directly, weaving them deftly into a brisk cultural narrative, and he handles with aplomb the large question confronting an Eakins biographer in the 21st century, the matter of Eakins’s sexuality. “To ignore that dimension of Eakins’ life would be to have only a partial person in view,” McFeely writes without undue fuss. “To view it as the single important factor in his life does the same disservice.” Diplomatically, McFeely refutes both the ultra-Freudian reading of Eakins’s life in art historian Henry Adams’s Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of An American Artist (2005) and the quaint denial of homosexuality in Lloyd Goodrich’s pioneering 1933 biography of the artist.

Instead, McFeely, speculating that most of Eakins’s friends in Paris were homosexual, remarks almost with resignation, “Homosexuality. That word, despite our somewhat self-righteous liberality, still sprinkles itching powder over any discussion of Eakins.” This biographer scratches lightly, suggesting that Eakins, physically more attracted to men than women, explored his sexuality in bohemian Paris and, once back in Philadelphia, in paintings like the famous Swimming Hole (1885), with its silent cry, as McFeely notes, for a more perfect world. This more perfect world is one of beautiful men in sunlight, outdoors, even though in buttoned-up Philadelphia, this world could not exist for long.

As an athletic outdoorsman, Eakins found solace by painting men in nature—rowing on the Schuylkill River, fishing on the Dela­ware—with the breadth, vibrancy, and openness (or the dream of it) not to be found in his inward-turning family portraits. (Eakins’s mother died in 1872, the victim of a bipolar disorder, which Eakins may have inherited; McFeely affords some evidence for a reasonable, if armchair, diagnosis.) This, to McFeely, is Eakins’s paradox: the painter hun­gers for the spiritual freedom expressed by antebellum writers such as Thoreau (whom Eakins may or may not have read), and yet over and over he rubs up against the harsh postwar reality of diminished expectations: a benighted public, the anti-indecency obsessions of Anthony Comstock, Eakins’ own pervasive sense of failure.

Yet he was also a craftsperson intent on perfecting form, not subverting it as Whitman did. He sought freedom within structure, not outside it. With the exactitude of an engineer, Eakins scrupulously measured the angles of the scull depicted in canvases such as The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake-Boat. In fact, his attention to proportion, ratio, and scientific measurement actually suggests to the reader a nonromantic metaphor for art that unfortunately McFeely doesn’t explore. In the remarkable Gross Clinic (1875, recently sold to the National Gallery of Art and Crystal Bridges Museum), for instance, the eponymous surgeon, a bloody red scalpel in his upraised hand, symbolizes the minute precision with which the artist must wield his brush if he, too, is to master life and death. Not surprisingly, Eakins judged it his most important work—today many viewers agree—but Philadelphia gentry balked, and during the City of Brotherly Love’s Centennial Exposition in 1876, The Gross Clinic was shuffled off to a side building.

A beloved teacher, Eakins taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, at first without pay, where he demanded anatomical correctness. He brought cadavers into the studio; he believed in drawing from human models, not plaster casts; and he bought himself a camera to intensify the reality of his own productions. Because Eakins was intrigued by Eadweard Muybridge’s experiments in motion, he was appointed to oversee Muybridge’s academy commission; while Eakins did this, he conducted experiments of his own and built a wheel camera to capture the motion of men running or vaulting. In the studio, he photographed naked students wrestling in athletic poses: “pansexual heat glowed in dim rooms that smelled of dust and varnish,” observed the art critic Peter Schjeldahl when reviewing the 2001 retrospective of Eakins’s work organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. McFeely is more circumspect, but in this case a bit too diffident, especially given the theme of his own book, when he concludes that “no attempt to read philosophy into these bizarre pictures is convincing.”

Following his dismissal from the stuffy academy in 1886, ostensibly for removing a male model’s loincloth in full view of female students, Eakins was accused of far more heinous crimes: his youngest sister’s husband, it seems, had organized a campaign of slander that included an allegation of Eakins being in a homosexual relationship with a student. By then married to one of his prize students, the painter Susan Macdowell, Eakins was distraught, his family torn, his self-confidence shredded. Taking temporary refuge in the open hills of Dakota Territory—the romantic anodyne for scandal and depression—Eakins slowly recovered, but his paintings darkened, and even in his loving portrait of Whitman, completed in 1888, sufferance and sadness subtly humanize the grand old man.

Later, Eakins’s friendship with the handsome sculptor Samuel Murray and their shared interest in bicycle riding and boxing brought renewed pleasure—and probably passion—into Eakins’s life. Admiring Susan Eakins’s remarkable understanding of her husband’s conflicted needs, McFeely hints that she may have satisfied her own desire for comfort and companionship, if not sexual gratification, when the unmarried Mary Adeline Williams came to live with the couple; Williams is the subject of one of Eakins’s most heart-wrenching portraits. By then, as McFeely astutely points out, even Eakins’s paintings of boxers and boxing are fragrant with lost hope: “Thomas Eakins was seeking pleasure out of weary desperation, not in affirmation.” Gone are the idylls of boat races and virile young men.

In 1899 Eakins painted an unsparing portrait of Susan, her face tipped to the right, as if she were listening carefully; but set against an unlit background, she’s cut off from time and place and other people. (His greatest portraits show his subjects in the clutches of a relentless middle age.) As McFeely persuasively reads it, Eakins saw himself in this searingly unsentimental picture of his wife, their mutual sorrow captivating, unabashed, unadorned, and abjectly human. And this is what Whitman must have meant when he called Eakins a force, not a painter. As a force, Eakins’s work both represents and belies the times that produced it. “It was not, in the end, simply [that] the nineteenth century had let Eakins down, but that it had let America down,” McFeely piquantly concludes, his argument rising to a pitch. “Eakins himself had not failed, as his self-scorn would have it. It was his nineteenth century that, at its close, failed him.” Maybe so; McFeely is a most credible narrator, inviting us to believe—and, better yet, to observe—that whatever his disappointment, whether with the broken promise of romantic freedom or something far more elusive, Eakins transformed it into an art of tragic grandeur.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Brenda Wineapple is a member of the editorial board of The American Scholar. She is the author of Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877.


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