Life and Times
Thomas Eakins grew up in Philadelphia. His father was a master calligrapher, and the young Eakins was instilled with an enthusiasm for careful and accurate line drawing. After finishing high school, Eakins went on to study drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In addition to his art coursework, he attended anatomy and dissection at the Jefferson Medical College, and for a time considered becoming a surgeon. On leaving college Eakins worked as a calligraphy teacher.
Just a year later, Eakins moved to Europe, determined to further pursue his art studies. In Paris he attended L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, studying under Gerome and Bonnat, both well-respected realist painters. Later he traveled to Seville in Spain to see for himself the masterworks of painters like Velazquez and De Ribera. Inspired, he produced his first ever large scale oil painting, A Street Scene in Seville. In 1870 Eakins returned to Philadelphia, never to go abroad again.
Through the 1870s Eakins painted a range of different subjects, including the strangely composed Max Schmitt In A Single Scull, and the very sombre Elizabeth at the Piano. More appealing perhaps are his fine extremely detailed studies of portraits at medical schools, an example of which is the magnificent The Gross Clinic (1875). Measuring over 6 ft wide by 8 ft high it is the artist’s largest work, and truly an impressive canvas. But Philadelphia’s art establishment was unimpressed (later on the college agreed to buy the work for just $200). In 1876 Eakins returned to Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, for two years working without pay. In 1882 he was made a director.
During this period, the new technology of photography was seen by many as the 'killer' of art. But Eakins embraced the camera, believing it to be an aid in the ultra-realistic reconstruction of scenes. To produce his painting A Morning In the Park, Eakins first studied the gaits of horses from multi image sequence photos.
At the Academy, his insistence on the use of nude models came in for a great deal of controversy. Eventually matters came to a head and in 1886 he was forced to resign. The final straw for his fellow directors was when he stripped off the loincloth of a male model in an art class which included female pupils. The resulting public outcry, scandal and charges of immorality were very humiliating for Eakins who felt the slight for ever more.
Thanks to financial help from his father, Eakins continued working as an artist, despite the derision of many. But for much of the later part of his career he worked alone, in virtual isolation.
In 1884 Eakins married Susan Hannah Macdowell Eakins, whom had been a student of his at the college. He had been engaged once before, but his fiancée had died of meningitis.
The artist died in 1916 of heart failure. His ashes were buried at the family burial plot near the Schuylkill River.