Projecting an Image: The Contested Cultural Identity of Thomas Eakins.

Author:Lubin, David
Position::Exhibition Reviews

Thomas Eakins: American Realist

Philadelphia Museum of Art, October 4, 2001-January 6, 2002

Darrel Sewell et al. Thomas Eakins, exh. cat. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2001. 487 pp., 289 color ills., 223 b/w. $65.00

The 19th-century realist Thomas Eakins frequently made use of photographs in preparing his finished oil paintings. This has never been a secret, nor a source of controversy. What has not been known until now is that he actually projected the images onto canvas and traced from them, incising tick marks in the canvas to guide his brush and then camouflaging these incisions in order to hide what would have seemed to his contemporaries a nonartistic reliance on picture-making technology. This was the headline news of Thomas Eakins: American Realist, the magnificent comprehensive exhibition of work by Eakins that originated at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the fall of 2001 and went on to the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York,

The painter's tracing of photographs was indeed news, though hardly attention-grabbing. Even before this latest revelation, Eakins was one of America's most controversial artists. You wouldn't have known it, however, from walking through this exhibition, which downplayed the "human-interest" side of its subject. Darrel Sewell, the museum's Robert L. McNeil Jr. Curator of American Art and a leading authority on Eakins, organized the exhibition in such a way as to steer clear of personal biography. The copious commentary provided by the show in the form of wall texts, introductory video, and punch-in-the numbers audio guide concentrated mostly on technical matters of artistic process, with only an occasional nod toward biographical milestones.

Such principled discretion had the effect of converting Eakins into a bloodless, sexless creative artist who cerebrally posed various difficult technical challenges to himself and then methodically and mechanically set about solving them. All the fuss made in the introductory video, the wall texts, and the museum s press materials about the great realist's previously unsuspected reliance on photographic tracing for achieving mimesis only reinforced the exhibition's depersonalization of Eakins. The authentic scandals of sex and social realism that broke during his lifetime and posthumously made him an American icon were displaced into a much milder and more narrowly circumscribed "scandal" about his unorthodox photographic procedure.

What do these paintings have to say about the world in which the artist lived? Why did he make them? What do they reveal about him? What can they tell us about ourselves? These are the questions--the "big" questions, to use the artist's favorite modifier when talking about the art he admired--that Thomas Eakins: American Realist was perhaps too discreet to confront. I wouldn't go so far as to say the show avoided or evaded such questions, only that it turned its gaze away from them and, in so doing, missed a select opportunity to connect the general public with one of the most serious, influential, and intellectually engaging artists the United States has produced.

Big painters, to borrow Eakins's terminology again, have big problems. That is, they set remarkably high standards for themselves and pose difficult challenges. But it would be a mistake to assume that these challenges are limited to technical matters such as, in Eakins's case, how to depict accurately the legs of trotting horses or the cant of a boat under sail. Eakins's problems lay in the personal and professional as well as representational realms, some of them relatively modern (how to make a living by one's mind rather than one's back; how to enjoy leisure; how to adopt a scientific ethos), others age-old (how to supersede one's parents; how to endure agonies of the flesh; how to face the encroachments of mortality). What proved most fascinating with regard to the exhibition was not its revelation about Eakins's tracing technique but rather the "big" picture it provided of a four-decade-long career repeatedly and often tensely balanced between the artist's unabashedly conservative fealty to the past (be it that of ancient Greek sculpture, Spanish Baroque painting, or the French academic realism of his student years) and his progressive loyalty to the present (as evidenced by his dogged insistence on portraying modern sports, science, and medicine in what seemed at the time a particularly cool, objective, and unsentimental manner).

Laid out through nine rooms in a decade-by-decade sequence, the exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art put on view 68 paintings by Eakins, 128 photographs either by him or by members of his circle, 18 sculptures, 15 drawings, and 8 watercolors. The first four and last four galleries formed two parallel axes with a small connecting gallery in between. Of the nine rooms, four were large and spacious with creamy white ceilings set high above walls painted subtle shades of gray, beige, or olive green. These displayed some of his largest and most impressive canvases to great visual effect. Three smaller, more intimate chambers, positioned at the midpoint of the viewing itinerary, contained works of the middle years of his career. The center of these three exhibited the largest painting Eakins ever attempted, The Agnew Clinic (1889, Fig. 7), an appropriate placement in that the work, here the literal turning point in the exhibition, has often been regarded as a turning point in the artist's career.

The first and last galleries, the smallest rooms, felt tight and confining. By the end of the show, the crowd of viewers had thinned, and the constriction of space suited the theme of the artist's autumnal last years. At the start, however, it created a distinct problem, for two reasons. First, visitors to a large exhibition always cluster at the beginning, so the arrangement of space should alleviate the inevitable initial crowding rather than add to it. Second, the dropped ceiling, drably painted walls, and low lighting of this gallery seemed oddly Out of keeping with the works displayed, predominantly of sports and play, failing to match their exuberance. The dimming of the lights was apparently mandated by the inclusion of a pair of delicate watercolor and wash perspective drawings, but this had the unfortunate effect of starting the tour of the artist's career on a glum note, when brightness and broad vistas were more biographically appropriate. As noted below, darkness did indeed intrude into Eakins's l ife in these otherwise sunny early years, yet the general tone of his life during this phase was upbeat and hopeful, and the opening gallery of the exhibition should have conveyed these feelings.

Even before reaching the subdued first room, the visitor had to maneuver past the Scylla of a bustling gift shop crammed full of rower refrigerator magnets and horse-and-carriage neckties and the Charybdis of a not fully enclosed video projection space, where booming-voiced museum curators and conservators, to the accompaniment of sentimental period music, held forth on their discovery of the master's photographic tracings and the importance of this discovery in appreciating his art. Fortunately, the intrusive sounds of both the didactic video and the Eakins emporium diminished greatly by the second ga1lery.

This second gallery also proved disappointing. It contained what is surely the most famous object Thomas Eakins ever made, The Gross Clinic (Fig. 1). In surveys of world art, this is the one American painting of the 19th century considered indispensable. Yet here it received a throwaway placement on a relatively short wall, flanked by two portraits minor in significance. Apparently the exhibition designers wished to underplay this obvious candidate for viewer veneration, even as the show as a whole downplayed the personality and life crises of the artist. That's certainly an intellectually justifiable position, but it is one that deprived viewers of the rewards offered by a prime axial view: first glimpsing the painting from afar, then experiencing the mounting excitement of approaching it in stages, its abstract masses of lights and darks cohering at last into a storm of vivid details flashing from the gloom.

Happily, the viewing itinerary improved after this. The dramatic sight line onto the majestic painting of 1880 The Crucifixion (Fig. 2) created by the tall, narrow archway between galleries two and three provided the high point of the show's mise-en-scene. Because Eakins has always been regarded as a scientific realist and hard-boiled empiricist with little use for religion until late in his career, when he befriended a small group of Jesuit clerics, the overtly religious imagery of this painting has usually been understood as merely a pretext for an artist wishing to indulge his fascination with the principles of human anatomy (or, from a queer studies perspective, his fascination with naked young male models). Being able to stand before The Gross Clinic in the second gallery and glance through the archway at The Crucifixion close by in the third made me think about these two ostensibly dissimilar works in a new way.

Their juxtaposition suggested that what was repressed in Eakins (or, perhaps more accurately, in Eakins scholarship) was not his sexuality but--I hardly know what else to call it--his spirituality. With the two paintings appearing in direct proximity, one could suddenly see the notorious thrashing fingers of the recoiling female in The Gross Clinic recapitulated in the contorted hands of Christ nailed to the cross. Does the similarity of tortured hands in the two paintings imply that Eakins viewed Christ--and thus Christianity--with the same disdain he allegedly reserved for squeamish Victorian-era men and women? Or, to the contrary, does this near repetition of involuntary hand gestures intimate that he took seriously the mental agony of...

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