One of this Country’s Greatest Artists
Born in Philadelphia in 1844, Thomas Eakins enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1862, a year after his graduation from the city’s Central High School. He also attended anatomy classes at Jefferson Medical College, participating in dissections and observing surgeries in order to better understand how the body works, a knowledge he thought was crucial for an artist’s development. He then traveled to Paris in 1866 to continue his artistic training. At the École des Beaux-Arts, under the supervision of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Eakins developed an appreciation for the human figure that would guide his work throughout his career.
Eakins returned to Philadelphia in 1870 and spent the rest of his life depicting the city and its people. His immersion in his community is reflected in his well-known sporting pictures showing rowers along the Schuylkill River and sailboats on the Delaware, and in his incisive portraits of family, friends, and prominent Philadelphians. Although his talent was widely acknowledged, critics often disapproved of his modern subjects and painstakingly realist style.
He began to teach at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1876 and was made professor of painting and drawing three years later; after 1882, when he was appointed director, he completed his transformation of the curriculum in keeping with his own realist methods. As a teacher, he was both admired and condemned for his radical beliefs, particularly his emphasis on anatomical dissection and the study of the nude. Controversy over Eakins’ removal of a loincloth from a male model prompted a scandal that led to his forced resignation from the Academy in 1886.
After 1886 Eakins increasingly turned to portraiture, although his penetrating character studies usually failed to flatter his sitters and he won few commissions. Honored, as he bitterly noted in 1894, by “misunderstanding, persecution and neglect” in his lifetime, he is now recognized as one of this country’s greatest artists.