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Portrait of Thomas Eakins
Portrait of Thomas Eakins, c. 1920-1925
Susan Macdowell Eakins, American
Oil on canvas
50 x 40 inches (127 x 101.6 cm)
Gift of Charles Bregler, 1939
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Thomas Eakins

American, 1844 - 1916

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Thomas Eakins was born on July 25, 1844, in Philadelphia, and with the exception of four years of study in Paris and Spain, the city remained his home. Its schools, public and private art collections, and community of artists--many of whom were recent emigrants from Europe trained in the academic tradition and familiar with new artistic styles--provided Eakins with an unusually wide-ranging art education for an American artist of his day.

When Eakins arrived in Paris in 1866 to continue his art studies, he was in the vanguard of young artists who would revolutionize American art over the next two decades, breaking away from the literalism of Hudson River School landscapes to emulate the figurative subject matter of European academic art. For the rest of his career, Eakins would remain the most dedicated American proponent of the painstaking, analytical artistic methods taught in European academies. Yet, as soon as he arrived back in Philadelphia, Eakins declared his independence from European conventions by painting subjects close to his own experience. Moreover, he didn't behave like his contemporaries. One critic described him as "much more like an inventor working [out] curious and interesting problems for himself than like an average artist."

Eakins was widely recognized as a formidable artistic talent almost as soon as he began to exhibit in the mid-1870s. However, his scenes of working- and middle-class life found little support from critics and patrons. His decision to concentrate on portraiture after 1886 presented an even greater challenge for his viewers, who expected flattery and stylistic dash, rather than the intense scrutiny and introspective mood that characterized Eakins's portraits.

Not until the turn of the twentieth century, when growing American nationalism called for a return to native subject matter in art and Eakins's perseverance came to be admired by his peers, did he begin to win honors and awards for his work. Artists of a younger generation, some of them Eakins's students, found in his paintings an honesty and directness that mirrored their own interests. The memorial exhibitions after his death in 1916 marked the beginning of recognition of Thomas Eakins as one of the United States' greatest artists.

Thomas Eakins: American Realist, 2002

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