Thomas Eakins Biography

Thomas Eakins Cowperthwait (July 25, 1844 – June 25, 1916). Painter and artist of American origin, considered as the greatest exponent of Realism during the nineteenth century, as well as promoter of this pictorial genre during the twentieth century.

He was best known for his portraits of people, as well as sports and real-life scenes. He was also the first to include at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts the subjects of Mathematical Study of Perspective, as well as Anatomy and Dissection, which meant a real revolution.

Paradoxically, its importance was not valued by his contemporaries, being the subject of fame and recognition after his death.

Early life

Thomas Eakins was born on July 25, 1844, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. His father was a writer, so from an early age he was exposed to art and outdoor activities.

During his school years he excelled in Mathematics and Science. However, the vocation to Painting continued to grow. From 1861 to 1866 he studied Drawing at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

However, strongly drawn to the study of the human figure, he conducted studies in parallel, attending the Anatomy conferences, given at Jefferson Medical College, where he had the opportunity to attend classes where dissections were performed.

In 1866 he moved to Paris, where he enrolled in the School of Fine Arts, an institution in which he had the opportunity to be a student, for three years, of Jean-Léon Géréme, the highest academic painter of that time.

Unlike contemporary painters, Eakins was not influenced by the Imperionists, on the contrary he placed the accent of his training in the Drawing. After completing his studies in France, he went to Spain, where he was shocked by the work of the 17th-century painters, Diego Velazquez and Joseph Ribera.

Another artist who would mark Eakins’ life would be Rembrandt. At that time, Eakins began to exercise in the technique of oil painting.

Pictorial beginnings

In 1870, he returned to his hometown of Philadelphia, where he would remain until the end of his days. He immediately resumed his pictorial activity, at which point he became interested in family scenes, where he portrayed his main affections. In these works, Eakins shows a great talent for transmitting through the color and arrangement of the elements the psychological and animian character of the portrayed characters.

During this time, however, he faced two hard blows when losing his mother, and a time later to his girlfriend Katherine Crowell. He abandons intimate and familiar scenes, and as a form of escape takes refuge in outdoor activities, taking an interest in hunting, fishing, swimming and sailing as themes of his paintings, in which he reveals a great sense of realism.

Sometimes he even gets to paint himself, seeing the scene he paints in his work. He also develops a great interest in the human figure in motion.

In 1875 he painted his masterpiece, The Gross Clinic, which he made in order to participate in the Centennial Exhibition, which would be held in the city the following year.

In this painting, Eakins portrays with great realism the chair of anatomy of the prfesor Samuel Bruto, during a surgical operation, in which it includes precise details of the incision, the instrumental and the emotions aroused in the assistants.

However, far from what I expected, the work was not accepted by the exhibition, while it was rejected by the public, who was offended by the portrait of a painful situation so explicitly. Today, this painting, considered the best of his work, is under the care of Jefferson Medical School, located in the city of Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

Towards the end of the 1870s, Thomas Eakins began teaching courses at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he became Professor of Drawing and Painting in 1879, later becoming Director of the Academy.

He’s always been a popular teacher. Taking advantage of his position as a manager, he reformed the penum of the institution, including within the course program two new subjects: Anatomy and Dissection, as well as Mathematical Study of Perspective.

During her tenure, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts gained national fame, beginning to be visited by students from all over the country, interested in training within their classrooms.

In 1884 she married one of her students, Susan Macdowell, who would also develop as a painter. However, his insistence on the use of naked models, rather than the use of plaster figures was misinterpreted, even costing him the post, from which he separated in 1886, after a scandal arising from bringing a naked model to a class where most of the students were women.

Final years

As a result, he devoted himself to his anatomical and movement studies, both in humans and animals, within which he lent special interest in the anatomical structure of horses. He also specialized in the genre of portraiture. His work was characterized by his ability to give the work a psychological atmosphere, while highlighting his great technique for portraying female busts and hands.

Towards the end of his career he became interested in photography, experimenting with trying to portray the human and animal body in motion. In the same way, towards the end of his days he made paintings of boxing scenes, which stand out for their great realism.

He died, unrecognized by his contemporaries, on June 25, 1916, in his hometown of Philadelphia. A year after his death, the first major exhibition of his work was organized, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) in New York.

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Thomas Eakins Biography
Source: Education  
July 31, 2019

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