Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins was born in Philadelphia in 1844, and would call the city home throughout his entire life. The son of a calligraphist, Eakins first displayed an aptitude for line drawing at the age of 12. He attended Central High School, the second oldest public high school in the country, located at that time at Broad and Green Streets and open only to boys. In 1861 he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the prestigious art school and museum that boasts among its alumni, over its 200 year history, more notable artists than one could conceivably count. Eakins also began auditing courses at Jefferson Medical College, in both anatomy and dissection, fascinated as he was with the natural human form.
In 1866, he set off to Paris to pursue art. He worked in the studios of artists Jean-Léon Gérôme and Léon Bonnat, before studying at the École des Beaux-Arts. He rejected what he thought were the “classical pretensions” of the French Academy and the newly emerging Impressionist movement, favoring realism instead. A stint in Spain, inspired by the work of de Ribera and Velàzquez, solidified his commitment to capturing the exactness of the human form.
A return to his roots
Upon his return to Philadelphia, Eakins returned to his family’s home on Mount Vernon Street, in the city’s Spring Garden neighborhood. He converted the fourth floor to his art studio, and later took over the house after his father’s death in 1899, living there with his own wife and children. The home, which is still standing, denoted with an historical marker, is today the headquarters of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, a fact which would have likely pleased the artist.
Eakins became a professor at PAFA in 1878, eventually becoming the school’s director several years later. As a teacher, he challenged his students to study the human body in ways previously not explored, using photographs (often his own) as a reference for anatomy, and surgical dissection as a study aid. He has plaster casts made of surgical dissections, which were then provided to his students. He allowed female students to have male figure models in their studio classes—a relative scandal given the day. His popularity with the Academy students led to the formation of the Art Students’ League of Philadelphia in 1886, where Eakins also taught after his resignation from PAFA that same year.
Eakins was also an avid photographer. He acquired his first camera in 1880, and worked briefly alongside English photograph Eadweard Muybridge at his studio in Philadelphia. Eakins used his photographs as precise starting points for several of his paintings, tracing the images onto a canvas through an image projector. In 1883 he embarked on a project known as the “Naked Series,” a collection of photographs of nude figure models and students, used to display accurate human anatomy in the most realistic way possible. His own paintings of people adhere to the strict, realistic representations of the form, and was less concerned with his portraiture being perceived as flattering than accurate.
His legacy as a Philadelphia artist endures. Eight acres of public space along Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a swath of pedestrian-only grounds nestled at the foot of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is dedicated as Eakins Oval. The Philadelphia Museum of Art holds the largest collection of works by Eakins—prints, paintings, bronzes, sculpture studies—than any other museum or institution.
“Sailboats Racing on the Delaware”
“The Old-Fashioned Dress (Portrait of Helen Montanverde Parker)”
Among his notable works, paintings like “Max Schmitt in a Single Scull,” of a high school friend of the artist rowing along the Schuylkill river, and “Between Rounds,” an exhausted prize fighter relaxing against the ropes, stand out as some of his finest. His most famous work, perhaps, (though definitely his largest), is “The Gross Clinic,” executed in 1875 depicting Philadelphia surgeon Dr. Samuel D. Gross performing an operation in an amphitheater filled with students at Jefferson Medical College. The painting took a year to complete, and was originally purchased by the medical school. It now alternates between the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy on a two-year exhibition, after the dramatic, fraught 2006 campaign to keep the painting in Philadelphia—but that’s a story for another time.
Works by Eakins continue to do well at auction, as evidenced by the success of the portrait of "Miss Eleanor S. F. Pue" in Freeman's American Art & Pennsylvania Impressionists sale in December of 2017. Curious what your Eakins will bring at auction? We are currently inviting consignments for our June sale.