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Teaching Materials

Thomas Eakins: American Realist
Philadelphia Museum of Art
October 4, 2001–January 6, 2002

These teaching materials were prepared for use with grades 5 through 12; you may need to adapt the information to the particular level of your students.

Biography of Thomas Eakins

Early life: 1844–1866
Thomas Eakins was born on July 25, 1844, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the oldest of four children and the only son of Caroline and Benjamin Eakins. His grandfather, Alexander Eakins, emigrated from northern Ireland to the United States, and it is believed by the family that their surname was originally spelled “Akins,” but that when Alexander and his wife Frances became American citizens, it was changed to “Eakins” (pronounced Ay-kins). Thomas attended Central High School (located in the Olney section of Philadelphia), where he excelled in math, science, languages, and drawing. Between 1861 and 1866 he enrolled in drawing and anatomy courses at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and studied anatomy and observed medical procedures at Jefferson Medical College. Though interested in becoming a surgeon, Eakins ultimately decided to pursue a career in art.

Eakins’s father supported him in his desire to be an artist and guaranteed him financial security. Surrounded by friends and family, he enjoyed a life full of sports (rowing, sailing, swimming, hunting, skating, and bicycling) and other outdoor activities. Eakins cared little about his personal appearance, was bright and intellectually inquisitive, and had strong opinions that he expressed freely.

The European Years: 1866–1870
Between 1866 and 1870, Thomas Eakins studied art in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts). While there he fell under the tutelage of Jean-Léon Gérôme, a painter and sculptor working in the classical style. He also studied with Augustin-Alexandre Dumont, a sculptor, and Léon Bonnat, a painter. While traveling through Europe Eakins wrote many letters to his family that were full of descriptions and sketches. The letters to his father were filled with his ideas on many subjects. He sent him an accounting of everything he spent and wrote, ”Your offer of still more money to enable me to continue my studies reached me last week...I long for the time that may enable me to give them the other direction.” The following year he wrote, ”I could even now earn a respectable living I think in America painting heads but there are advantages here which could never be had in America for study."

During Eakins’s stay in Europe he visited Spain, where he spent time sketching and painting. While there he created a scene with figures in a landscape titled A Street Scene in Seville (1870); it was a challenging theme that he would revisit later in his career.

Career and Teaching: 1870–1897
In July 1870 Thomas Eakins returned to Philadelphia and his family home where, except for a brief period, he would live until his death in 1916. At this time the artist began using rowing as a subject for his paintings. The Champion Single Sculls (1871) was Eakins’s first publicly exhibited painting; his friend from Central High School, Max Schmitt, was the rower in the shell. In addition, Eakins began to paint portraits, which would occupy him for the rest of his life.

Eakins enrolled in courses at Jefferson Medical College and taught at the Philadelphia Sketch Club. In 1875 he began his extraordinary and controversial painting Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic). One critic praised it, saying, “nothing greater...has ever been executed in America,” while another described it as “revolting to the last degree.” In 1879 Eakins was hired by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, to be a professor of drawing and painting, and became interested in the photographic animal locomotion studies of Eadweard Muybridge. He bought his first camera and used it to compose photographs that he would use both in his paintings and in his teaching. He became director of the Academy in 1882 and began receiving important painting commissions. His compositions were purchased by collectors and he was considered an important, although controversial, modern American artist. In 1884, Eakins married a former student, Susan Hannah Macdowell.

Edward Coates, head of the Pennsylvania Academy’s Committee on Instruction, commissioned Eakins to create a painting for the institution. The image the artist produced, Swimming (1884–85), was rejected amid controversy over the nude young boys depicted and in 1886 Eakins was asked to resign as director. Following his resignation, a group of students left the Academy and formed the Art Students’ League of Philadelphia. Eakins continued to lecture in Philadelphia and New York City. In 1889 a group of students from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine commissioned Eakins to paint Dr. David Agnew; The Agnew Clinic

Final Years: 1897–1916
Thomas Eakins’s teaching and lecturing, which had been a major part of his life, came to an end in 1897. Portraiture had always been an important part of his work and from this time on it became his primary focus. Eakins received many commissions for likenesses during his career. However, the majority of his portraits were of family, friends, and people who he asked to pose for him. This group consisted of individuals he found interesting or who he admired for their intellect or accomplishments. Eakins painted people as he saw them and often it was not as they saw themselves. When a well-known Philadelphian was asked why Eakins did not paint him he said, "For the reason that he would bring out all those traits of my character that I have been trying to conceal from the public for years."

After more than twenty years, Eakins returned to sports for inspiration, especially boxing and wrestling. As he did with all his work, he immersed himself in the subjects. He attended prizefights, met and invited fighters to his studio so they could demonstrate their skills, and made many preparatory paintings. Between Rounds (1898–99) depicts a real fighter, resting in his corner of the ring, and Eakins has filled the painting with portraits of people he knew. The death of Eakins's father in 1899 was a great loss to the artist.

At the turn of the century the art world finally began to appreciate both Eakins’s depictions of the human figure and his realistic scenes of contemporary urban life. He served on many juries (the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania Academy were just two) and exhibited widely. In 1902 Eakins was designated an associate of the National Academy of Design. In 1904 the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts awarded him the prestigious Temple Gold Medal. When Eakins accepted it he said, ”I think you’ve got a heap of impudence to give me a medal.” He then rode off on his bicycle to the United States Mint, where he traded the medal for its monetary value. From 1908 to 1910, he returned to a theme from the late 1870s: William Rush Carving his Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (1876–77), painted more portraits, and continued to exhibit.

Eakins’s health and sight were deteriorating and after 1913 he could not leave the house. During this period he was interviewed regarding art and what he thought of Impressionism, Cubism, and Futurism. He stated, “They are all nonsense, and no serious student should occupy his time with them.” In 1916 Thomas Eakins died in the house in which he had lived and worked for most of his life. Susan Eakins, who was his wife for thirty-two years, wrote in her diary:

Sun. June 25, 1916 Tom is dead.
Mon. June 26, 1916 My poor Tom, away forever from the house this day.

Image Program


Shad Fishing at Gloucester on the Delaware River
Shad Fishing at Gloucester on the Delaware River, 1881
Thomas Eakins, American
Oil on canvas
12 1/8 x 18 1/8 inches (30.8 x 46 cm)
Gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss Mary Adeline Williams, 1929
1929-184-33
[ More Details ]
Shad Fishing at Gloucester on the Delaware River

Aware that the decreasing amount of fish in the Delaware River would eventually destroy the way of life of Gloucester fisherman, Thomas Eakins painted this scene as a way to remember them. He took about seventy photographs of the fishermen, their families, and the area. He was reluctant to have the general public know that he had used a camera as part of his work so he carefully concealed the marks he had applied to the canvas when referring to the source photograph.

 
Looking Question
  • How does Easkins create the sense of deep space in this painting?
 
The Concert Singer
The Concert Singer, 1890-1892
Thomas Eakins, American
Oil on canvas
6 feet 3 1/8 inches × 54 1/4 inches (190.8 × 137.8 cm) Framed: 7 feet 2 5/16 inches × 65 3/16 inches (219.2 × 165.6 cm)
Gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss Mary Adeline Williams, 1929
1929-184-19
[ More Details ]
The Concert Singer

Thomas Eakins had always enjoyed music, although he never learned to play an instrument and considered his singing to be rather bad. His sisters played the piano as did his wife, Susan, who was quite gifted. They all appear in paintings with musical themes. During his long career Eakins featured music in over twenty works. He attended concerts, orchestras, and operas in Philadelphia and, during his student days, in Paris. He was especially interested in the efforts of the musician and how, through hard work and discipline, beautiful and emotion-filled music could be created. He admired people who were accomplished and often showed them doing the activity at which they excelled. Eakins met Weda Cook through mutual friends; she was twenty-three when she began posing for The Concert Singer in 1890. Because she had an active and successful career, she posed when possible over the course of two years. Eakins did a preliminary oil sketch showing the hand of the conductor and paying special attention to the area of her mouth and throat before he began this larger composition. Her dress is carefully painted so that it is clear that it is made of silk brocade and trimmed with lace and seed pearls. However, Eakins’s careful rendering of the dress does not detract from Cook’s beauty; he conveys her total involvement in the act of singing. Each time she would pose he asked her to sing, “Oh rest in the Lord” from Mendelssohn’s Elijah. It is thought that Eakins chose to depict the moment when she sang the ”e” in rest. Many years later, she commented that when she was posing he watched her "as if under a microscope."

 
Looking Questions
  • This complete figure portrait of Weda Cook is not a commission but a painting for which Eakins asked her to pose. This was not painted on the concert stage but in his studio. How does he create the feeling that we are at a concert?
  • From which direction is the light coming?
  • Do you think that this is a flattering likeness of her?
  • How would you feel about posing for such a long time?
 
Between Rounds
Between Rounds, 1898-1899
Thomas Eakins, American
Oil on canvas
50 1/8 x 39 7/8 inches (127.3 x 101.3 cm)
Gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss Mary Adeline Williams, 1929
1929-184-16
[ More Details ]
Between Rounds

In 1898 Thomas Eakins returned to athletic themes, a subject he had not pursued since the 1870s. This time, instead of painting figures outdoors, he chose boxing and wrestling. With his usual approach, he immersed himself in the subject, creating many preliminary oil sketches in preparation for the three boxing scenes he produced. His friend, the sportswriter Clarence Cramner, said, "Eakins saw over three hundred rounds of prizefighting before he began." While the artist was working he became friends with many boxers and invited them to his studio and had them demonstrate their techniques. His studio on Chestnut Street must have been a very busy place because when friends would stop by Eakins would say, "Stay for a while and I’ll put you in the picture." The boxing paintings all took place at the Arena at the corner of Broad and Cherry Streets, Philadelphia, across the street from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Between Rounds does not show the action of the prizefight but instead depicts Smith in his corner with his handlers Ellwood McCloskey and Tim Callahan. Eakins's friend Cramner is the timer and it is believed that the man in the press box to the right of the number two is William Ulrich, a New York newspaper sketch artist. The banner at the left lists the participants of the evening and the date, April 22. The other banners are advertisements for plays at the Walnut Street Theater.

 
Looking Questions
  • What do you see first when you look at this painting and why?
  • How does Eakins draw your attention to that part of the painting?
  • How does he create the atmosphere and what do you think it would have been like to be in the arena for the series of prizefights?
  • How does he show the viewer that there was more than the one event?
  • What round has just ended? Does the fight look like one in our time? Why not?
  • How does he create the illusion of space?
  • Do you think that Billy Smith won the fight?

 
Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic)
Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875
Thomas Eakins, American
Oil on canvas
8 feet x 6 feet 6 inches (243.8 x 198.1 cm)
Gift of the Alumni Association to Jefferson Medical College in 1878 and purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2007 with the generous support of more than 3,600 donors, 2007
2007-1-1
[ More Details ]
The Gross Clinic

In April of 1875, Eakins wrote to his friend Earl Shinn, "What elates me more is that I have just got a new picture blocked in and it is very far better than anything I have ever done. As I spoil things less and less in finishing I have the greatest hopes of this one."

Eakins went to Jefferson to take more anatomy courses and studied with Dr. Samuel D. Gross, one of the leading surgeons in America, an extraordinary teacher, and the author of a definitive book on surgery. It was a surgical amphitheater with Dr. Gross demonstrating an operation that Eakins chose as the site for his largest and most challenging painting yet.

The painting is a portrait of Dr. Gross at work, operating and teaching. Portraits of other doctors and observers either sketching or taking notes—including Eakins, who is seated to the right of the entrance—surround him. Eakins also produced at least six small portraits of surgeons (plus Dr. Gross) and an oil sketch of the entire compostion. The Gross Clinic was not a commission, leaving Eakins free to paint what he wanted.

Other artists, including Rembrandt, had shown doctors at work. They were usually demonstrating on cadavers, however, and not operating on a live patient.

 
Looking Questions
  • This is a big painting—96 x 78 inches. How does Eakins draw you into the painting and move your eyes to the things he wants you to see?
  • Dr. Gross was a world famous surgeon and the operation that he is performing was a major breakthrough in surgery. Is this the way operations are done now? What things are different?
  • This painting was considered shocking to most people when it was first exhibited. Why? Later, it became known as one of the greatest American paintings. Why do you think opinions changed?
 

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