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Jed Perl on Art: The Contrarian

"Thomas Eakins: American Realist," at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a blandly celebratory event. This artist, whose dark, vehement temperament and tough-minded verisimilitude made him an unsettling figure in his time, and who has continued to provoke contradictory reactions up till our own day, is given an evened-out presentation, as if he were a rather dull nineteenth-century worthy.

As visitors move through this salute to Philadelphia's most famous artistic son, they see the photographs that Eakins and his students took of one another, often after tossing their clothes in a heap, but these wonderfully unabashed images are presented almost nostalgically, as if they were nothing more than mementos of a dusty bohemian studio. And the scandals that Eakins provoked in the 1880s by removing the loincloth from a male model in the presence of women students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts register as little more than proto-countercultural exploits to set beside Van Gogh's madness and Gauguin's adventures in the South Seas. The installation in Philadelphia, with small photographs hung around larger paintings in an arrangement that is some kind of decorator's version of Victoriana, consigns Eakins's work to a chic fantasy past, since next to none of his photographs were shown in his time, and the idea of presenting paintings and photographs as equally engaging is relatively new. Eakins's search for absolute, empirical truth—which fueled his photographic studies and inspired in many of his paintings an almost anti-artistic kind of exactitude—ends up feeling hollow and old-fashioned.

Eakins was a complicated and anomalous figure—a man whose attitude toward art was at once academic and avant-garde. For much of the twentieth century, authors and artists as varied as Lewis Mumford, Marsden Hartley, Lincoln Kirstein, Clement Greenberg, and Fairfield Porter regarded Eakins as an artist whose resistance to anything easygoing epitomized America's essentially conflicted relationship with aesthetic experience. One could believe that the product of all this dissonance was a pinnacle of American achievement, arguing, as Kirstein did, that Eakins's "often dry, harsh, unappetizing" paint quality was among the tools essential to an artist who was "in search of a super-reality" and who "absorbed and mutated the accidental, editing chance into formidable permanent order." Or one could conclude, with Hartley, that "there is a heaviness about Eakins that seems almost irrelevant in the field of picture making," a sentiment that was echoed by Porter when he wrote that Eakins's "preoccupation with the useful did not include an appreciation for art." The fascination that this painter has exerted, especially since the 1930s, has to do with his paradoxical position at the dawn of the modern world of art, with his status as an American independent who insisted on his brown-on-brown harmonies even as the Post-Impressionists were going mad with pure color.

"STRAIN YOUR BRAIN more than your eyes," a student reported that Eakins asserted, time and again. This was surely a strange thing for a painter to say. Eakins's appeal was—and, I think, ought to remain—that of an American contrarian. If he goes down too easily in Philadelphia, this is probably because the very idea of the artist as a contrarian is not so much out of fashion as it is beyond many people's comprehension. After closing in Philadelphia in January, this retrospective goes to the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and then to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York next summer. Among the team responsible for the show, headed by Darrel Sewell, the Philadelphia Museum's curator of American art, there is considerable excitement about a native son's appearance in Paris. This is said to be the first Parisian retrospective devoted to a nineteenth-century American who was not (like Whistler or Sargent) an expatriate. But of course the Musee d'Orsay, where the tension between avant-garde and academic impulses that animated nineteenth-century art was long ago repackaged as a sort of haut junk-shop pluralism, is hardly a place where contrarianism, Paris-style or Philadelphia-style, is likely to be grasped.

The urge to make something with one's hands had a long history in Eakins's family. His grandfather had been a weaver. His father was a writing master, and the rule-book exactitude of the art of penmanship does seem, as many people have observed, to have fueled the sobriety that Eakins brought to the painter's craft. When he was in his thirties, Eakins did a number of oils and watercolors in which he looked back to earlier generations of American creators, painting the legendary Philadelphia sculptor William Rush as well as impressions of the domestic arts of a pre-industrial America, with women knitting or spinning. The idea of art as a form of labor interested Eakins, and although there is surely always a connection between the artisanal and the impersonal, Eakins was to a rather unusual degree a painter who was attracted by a technique that denied the vividness of the artist as a personality.

When he went to Paris in 1866, in his early twenties, Eakins studied with Jean-Leon Gerime and Leon Bonnat, both leading exponents of a dispassionate academic technique, and to the end of his days Eakins was a true believer in their finicky literalism, in a kind of pedantic empiricism that located truth in a dry-as-dust precision. Eakins was unmoved by the impulses behind Impressionism, by the sense that the very process of looking, of experiencing, of getting things down, would transform our understanding of nature and make it new. Back in Philadelphia, his insistence on this academic empiricism came to have a homegrown ferocity. Eakins generally avoided the picturesque subjects that Gerime employed to give his hard-boiled techniques a romantic atmosphere. He rendered the people of his time with a forthrightness that had its own kind of avant-gardist shock. His belief that an almost obsessive faith in anatomical and perspectival precision could strip away life's illusions came to represent the rearguard avant-garde in late nineteenth-century American art.

ALTHOUGH EAKINS ASPIRED to be a painter of modern life, he cared nothing for the flashing insights and dramatic crystallizations that we associate with Baudelaire's wanderer in the city. Eakins wanted to reconstruct meticulously everything he saw; he focused on the labor of reconstructing rather than on the pleasure of seeing. His work ethic did produce its own kind of emotional power, a power that can seem almost like a shadow inadvertently cast across the canvas by the artist's hunkered-down personality. I suspect that Marsden Hartley had this peculiar emotional quality in mind when he remarked, "I am not interested in Eakins's fact, and certainly not in his style of painting, so I seem to find myself sort of washed up by a curious tide, and left." The unrelaxed quality of Eakins's work can be fascinating, but it can also be rather trying, especially when the paintings are seen in bulk in a large retrospective. Eakins never eases up.

This exhibition opens with the paintings of oarsmen on the Schuylkill River, scenes that include the most tough-minded and even bloody-minded images that have ever been painted of shimmering water under brilliant sun. Eakins's athletes—especially the famous sculler John Biglin, his face often in profile, his muscular torso and arms compact—are all steely determination. Biglin seems at odds with his environment, entirely focused on conquest. His physical prowess is not given a rhythmical beauty. Although Eakins's work has its pastoral interludes—a group of figures in classical dress in a green glade; young men swimming—he is very much a man at odds with nature. In the suavely composed Swimming (1884- 1885), unfortunately not included in the Philadelphia show, the figure painting demonstrates formidable knowledge and powerful technique. And yet Eakins's young men, for all their turning, diving, and swimming, seem insulated from the heat and the moisture and the light of a glorious day.

FOR EAKINS, REALISM was a kind of armor or carapace that he constructed, piece by piece, from the inside out. He was fascinated by the study of anatomy, and twice in his career he produced large canvases devoted to great surgeons, showing them surrounded by their students. The earlier of these paintings, The Gross Clinic (1875), can be regarded as a summing-up work by this artist who doubted that surfaces could be trusted. Here the renowned Philadelphia surgeon Dr. Samuel David Gross leads a team that is performing an operation on a young man to remove a bone from his thigh. The grim composition is painted in blackish-bluish tones that seem to suck up all the available light, so that Eakins's complex arrangement of crisscrossing and averted glances operates subliminally, as if in a nightmare. Even the great surgeon's head, painted in strident whites, has the coldness of a fire that has turned to ash. Dr. Gross is speaking to a crowd assembled in the amphitheater to watch the operation, but with his head cast slightly down, so that he seems almost to be speaking to himself. To his immediate left are his surgical team, focused on the young man, most of whose body we cannot see. Elsewhere, two other figures with downcast heads, one a self-portrait of Eakins, seem to be busy taking notes. And the patient's mother, behind Dr. Gross and to his right, hides her face with her hand.

During his time in Europe, Eakins visited Spain and became a great admirer of VelAzquez, and you can feel the influence in The Gross Clinic. Eakins is thinking of the complex play of glances in some of the Spanish master's works, and also of Rembrandt's paintings of medical men. It could be argued that all the averted eyes in The Gross Clinic suggest a sort of modernization of the Baroque, and that the underlying theme of the painting is the difficulty of seeing, or of understanding what we see. But if Eakins does want us to confront the mysteries of sight, he lacks the quicksilver representational skills needed to make us see those difficulties clearly. The down-to-earthness of Eakins's sensibility robs his compositions of a much-needed imaginative dimension, of the kind of dramaturgy that even a realist such as Courbet knew would give big figure compositions a rhythmic impact. The bloody scalpel that Dr. Gross holds in his hand is not unlike a paintbrush with pigment; but the scalpel is all wrong as an emblem for the painter's art, for it celebrates the painter's icy dissections at the expense of his daring reconstructions.

Many of Eakins's most famous compositions are not so much triumphs of artistic sensibility as they are elaborately worked-up presentations of the American condition. Even Lloyd Goodrich, the historian whose half-century-long studies of Eakins culminated in the magisterial biography published in 1982, sometimes seems to believe that what we care about in Eakins is less his capacities as a painter than some quality of "individual and national character" that comes through in his work. One certainly could argue that the man who painted John Biglin in a Single Scull (1873-1874) and The Gross Clinic is an American genius; but as a painter he rarely produces the kinds of sparks or nuances or enigmas that hold me before a canvas. When I look at the perspective studies that Eakins prepared for the sculler paintings, I have to wonder at this man who thought of water as a hard surface. True, this is the kind of quasi-scientific operation that one can imagine Uccello undertaking, but with Uccello the geometry would have gone off on some fantasy jag. With Eakins, all the fussy perspective is just his roundabout way of feeling confident about the location of the boats on the river.

GREAT ARTISTS ARE seducers. When a classicist such as Ingres or a realist such as Courbet constructs his indomitable structures, he is also, in many different ways, offering avenues for entry and exit. He is creating rhythms, rhymes, jokes, echoes, patterns, arabesques. He is allowing us to feel implicated in what he does. The result is that we tumble into the experience. Eakins is the anti-seducer. He wants us to respect his efforts. And we do, we do. But there is rarely a kinetic excitement that gets going in his work. Even the hedonistic touches are disinterestedly plotted.

In An Actress (1903), which we come upon toward the end of the show, Eakins paints Suzanne Santje wearing a gown of a wildly lurid red, and that color, which obviously reflects the woman's extravagant tastes, suggests a painting with a bold coloristic brilliance. But Eakins provides nothing for that red to bounce off, to interact with. Corot, if confronted with this casually yet showily dressed woman, would probably have deepened some of his colors to underscore the red; he would have given it a mellow force. Eakins simply sets Santje's dress in one of his generic brown-on-brown environments. By refusing to respond in painterly terms to Santje's costume, Eakins rejects precisely the kind of visual complexity that animates the greatest paintings of theatrical types. This extravagant piece of clothing is given a grim, murkily journalistic rendering.

Like many of Eakins's portraits, An Actress has a muffled psychological impact, an impact that can seem to be an after-effect of the painting's artistic failings. Eakins's tamped-down authority as a portraitist sometimes mirrors the layered emotions of his subjects. The portraits are, by and large, the strongest things that he ever did. They have the circumspect power of investigative reports. They can be curiously impersonal, although many of Eakins's subjects were his friends or professionals whose achievements he admired. Lewis Mumford, in his fine discussion of Eakins in The Brown Decades, observes that "he was at his best with human characters. The backgrounds of his portraits are frequently empty; if they are painted in at all, they are too often thin and unsatisfactory; but this weakness is the result only of the intensity and stress that has gone into the figure itself." That seesawing between weakness and intensity, which is so characteristic of Eakins, suggests psychological cross-currents. Eakins's portrait subjects often seem like sleepwalkers, plunged in private confusions even as they yearn to cut a figure in the world.

Eakins was already striking this equivocal mood in the 1880s, in a portrait that he did of his wife Susan, comfortably seated with a book of Japanese prints in her hand and Eakins's setter at her feet. In the '80s, though, the artist still had a tendency to work his portraits a little too evenly, so that the surfaces have a stuffy consistency that suggests Victorian complacency. A portrait that Eakins did of his father in 1882, which shows the old man laboring over a piece of calligraphy, feels wanly picturesque. But by the end of that decade Eakins's hunger for the truth began to shatter the academic good manners of his compositions. In the 1890s his fanatical interest in the specifics was working against a glib pictorial unity, and more and more the portraits took on the interestingly dissonant character to which Mumford refers. In The Thinker (1900), a portrait of a young man named Louis N. Kenton, the treatment of the figure does not necessarily rise above the level of magazine illustration, but the combination of a bold, legs-apart stance and a downcast head is so striking that the result becomes a sort of emblem of sensitive youth caught in the over-commercialized atmosphere of post-Civil War America.

The Thinker is one of a number of portraits that are known by generic titles. These titles—An Actress, The Concert Singer, The Vicar General, The Cello Player, The Archaeologist—have a way of emphasizing Eakins's tendency to turn his encounters with individuals into sociological or even anthropological investigations. Even in some of the smaller, more intimate portraits of lifelong friends, I sometimes feel that Eakins is painting not an individual but a type. His portrait of Samuel Murray, a student with whom he remained very close until his death, can be interpreted as a tough-minded look at the dreaminess of youth.

IN THE PORTRAITS Eakins's work takes on some of the nuts-and-bolts force of realist fiction in the line from Howells to Dreiser. When you read those writers, what often holds you is not the seamless pleasure of language so much as the from-the-foundations-up excitement of watching descriptions unfold and situations build; you see the mechanisms of realism as they are locked into place. There is a clunkiness to the way Eakins arranges the accoutrements of a person's profession around him. He paints the ethnographer Frank Hamilton Cushing surrounded by Indian artifacts. He shows Sarah Sagehorn Frishmuth, a collector of old musical instruments, in a room strewn with her finds. But he does not gather these elements together into suave compositions, as Holbein would. The Indian artifacts and old musical instruments are handled perfunctorily, as if they were items on a resume. Eakins wants this prosaic mood; his subjects were sometimes annoyed when he insisted that they wear their workaday clothes.

When I look at the Portrait of Professor Henry A. Rowland (1897), who was a physicist, I feel as if I am being forced to make awkward jumps through the space, from Rowland to the elaborate experimental apparatus that he invented to his assistant in the background. As in the portrait of Suzanne Santje, the color in the Rowland portrait feels disjointed—descriptive rather than pictorial. In his hand Rowland holds a small mechanism, a sort of series of prisms etched into a mirror that refracts light, and Eakins renders this object in high-keyed colors that have nothing to do with anything else in the painting. But perhaps the most striking feature of the Rowland portrait is the frame, which is also by Eakins. Eakins has embellished this broad wood surface with various equations and diagrams associated with Rowland's work. They are carved into the wood like extravagant graffiti. The frame has a playful quality; the lines and shapes, inscribed in a way that feels almost random, suggest the sheer fun of intellectual activity. How characteristic it is of Eakins to keep this exciting divertimento in the frame. It is as if the spontaneity of invention cannot encroach on the painting itself, where intelligence must equal sobriety.

Eakins saw himself as operating in a tradition of daring verisimilitude that went back to VelAzquez. In this longing to grapple with nature, he was of his time; his stoical truth-telling has some of the same roots as Van Gogh's shoes. But Eakins was also working during the decades when naturalism was turning into symbolism, and although he fought against that turn, he was willy-nilly swept up in the changing temper of art. Eakins wanted to believe in a rigorously progressive idea of realistic investigation, as if realism were still the discovery that it had been for Van Eyck; but his own realism inevitably took on a trapped, haunted aura. Although he refused to give his naturalism an artful burnishing, he could not entirely avoid that strange late-nineteenth-century alchemy by which truth became a symbolist conceit. His empiricism was not a universal belief but a personal attitude—a bundle of mannerisms that might or might not cohere into a style, in spite of the fact that the m an did not believe in style.

The restlessness of nineteenth-century art, which made the Paris of the 1860s a center of revolutionary discovery equal to any in the entire history of art, registered with Eakins, but in a highly unusual way. He hungered for a renewed truth as much as Seurat or Van Gogh, but he could not accept the idea that an artistic truth was a personal truth. The greatest dramas of his life centered around his efforts to construct, in an academic setting back in Philadelphia, a system of pedagogy that would bring together teachers and students to confront nature directly. His plans for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where, in the mid-1880s, he was director of the schools, suggest a rearguard idealism.

Eakins's impact was enormous at the academy during the few years when he was shaping the curriculum, and his influence continued for a few years more, after he was forced to resign, when a group of students founded the Art Students' League of Philadelphia so that they could continue to work with him. Eakins strove for a kind of pedagogical coherence that was in fact unknown at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where, by the time he was a student, academic studies had to do less with acquiring a comprehensive understanding of the past than with figuring out how to make your way in the present. To study art in Paris, even to go through the Beaux-Arts, was to experience overlapping and sometimes contradictory aesthetic ideas. At the Pennsylvania Academy, Eakins attempted to develop a fully coherent academic program, almost a Bauhaus of academic art. He wanted students to study anatomy and perspective, figure painting, portraiture, still life, and photography. He wanted them to see how everything went together. The academic method equaled honesty, because it offered a standard that transcended individual experience.

Eakins was clearing the cobwebs of convention out of the academic approach when he urged female students to see the male nude complete, and encouraged students to become subjects in a series of photographic studies of the naked body seen from various angles in various poses. When he went out with groups of students into the countryside and photographed them wrestling in the nude, or allowed them to photograph him with nothing on, he was reviving Athens in Pennsylvania. "There can be few more touching documents in art history," Kirstein declared, "than pictures Eakins took, or had taken, of himself, his students, in the nude. In the fastness of his studio, in escapes to beach and swimming hole, he was briefly freed to luxuriate in the absolute proximity of the human body, in its quickness, grace, vulnerability." The snapshot ease of many of the photographs still gives a jolt. They relate to an interest in the natural life—in gymnastics, in nudism, in rustic retreats—that was becoming a cult in both Europe and America in the late nineteenth century. But there is also something more personal here. When Eakins came into contact with the camera, he was released from the responsibilities that he associated with painting.

Eakins's interest in photography was recognized even in his own day, but the publication in 1972 of Gordon Hendricks's collection of the photographs remains a watershed event. Since then studies of the photographs have proliferated, and there can be no question but that the catalogue of the current show adds to our understanding of how Eakins used these images. Examinations of paintings using new laboratory techniques have revealed underdrawings and incised lines that suggest that in many instances Eakins did not merely employ photographs as compositional aids, but in fact projected photographs directly onto the canvas and traced their outlines and then copied them, tone for tone. Although this contradicts certain statements made by Eakins's wife to the effect that he did not like to work directly from photographs, I have to say that the new information does not come as much of a surprise. How exactly it was done may now be clearer, but hasn't the tight, constricted character of many of Eakins's images always suggested a sharply photographic quality?

There is a paradox here, for Eakins was fascinated by photography's ability to reveal movements hidden from the naked eye. In 1883, Muybridge presented his photographs of animal locomotion at the Pennsylvania Academy. Eakins was excited by these sequential images, which broke down the complex muscular operations of human beings and animals into isolated instants and then brought them together again to create a proto-cinematic magic. He supported Muybridge's experiments in Philadelphia and became involved in his own parallel investigations. He created a series of flickering, diagrammatic photographs in which the overlapping bodies seem to prefigure Futurism, but these extraordinary effects, which also give scientific confirmation to some of the kinetic drama of Baroque art, were never really incorporated into his paintings. There it is the frozen-moment quality of photographic images that holds our attention. In Eakins's photographs, we see what he held back from his paintings: a buoyant informality, a feeling of vitality.

THE FRANKNESS OF the photographs is fascinating. When the artist, his wife, and his students dropped their clothes for the camera, they regarded themselves as researchers—they aimed for a superior understanding of the human figure—but of course something more was at stake. This vast store of photographs, in which the nude (and especially the male nude) was presented as unabashedly as anywhere in nineteenth-century photography, suggest a strain of feeling among a certain group of Philadelphia bohemians. Yet what Eakins and his students felt about each other—and whether all this looking led to other things—will never be clear. We really know little more than Eakins's contemporaries, who were familiar with the rumors that circulated around his teaching career, and who could view in any number of ways his friendship with Walt Whitman, a revered national figure whose portrait Eakins took with camera and brush, and at whose funeral Eakins was among the pallbearers. In recent years the gender studies crowd has turned its attention to Eakins, but for the most part these scholars seem to have concluded by expressing a refreshingly un-postmodern respect for the man's indissoluble complexity, for his insistence on regarding life as a great experiment that would have no neat conclusions.

Eakins lived much of his life in Philadelphia under a cloud. He had his staunch defenders and his close friends. Yet the city could not easily forget the accusations of sexual impropriety that had blighted his years as a teacher. And even as those scandals faded, Philadelphia remained uneasy with the directness of his realism, which made his portraits often seem harsh and unappealing. His paintings rarely sold, and most were still in his studio when he died in 1916. It was only some fifteen years later that his work began to be widely admired for the very qualities for which it had been reproached in his own time: for its grittiness, its remorselessness.

It was in the 1930s that Eakins came to be generally regarded as a kind of modern, as representing some essence of the national character or spirit. He spoke to a country struggling through the Great Depression, and this view of Eakins as a hard-bitten American is by now the conventional one. Yet in recent years, without losing his status as a precursor or avatar of American modernity, there has developed also an international and even a universalist view of Eakins. Scholars who have been swept up in a renewed admiration for French academic naturalism have emphasized Eakins's relationship with that tradition, which has placed him, for all his Americanness, in the broader trans-Atlantic context.

What we see in Philadelphia is the "have your cake and eat it too" Eakins. He is an American original, a man who did everything in his own, stubborn way; and he is a figure with strong links to the core of European painting, not only to Gerime, but somehow also to VelAzquez and Rembrandt. Philadelphia's art community, not to mention the country as a whole, long ago made its peace with Eakins. What once seemed uncomfortable now seems almost banal. But there is still something about Eakins that cannot be confronted directly, that cannot be forgiven.

In her preface to the catalogue, Anne d'Harnoncourt, the director of the Philadelphia Museum, observes that visitors to this show at the Musee d'Orsay will have "the opportunity to see Eakins's work in a French context." This "reminds us," she continues, "that he shared a lifelong fascination with the human body and its awkward beauty with his near contemporary Edgar Degas." Of all the French painters, Degas is certainly the one with whom Eakins has the closest affinities: just think of their interests in athletics and in photography, and of their allegiance to academic ideals. D'Harnoncourt is too savvy a commentator actually to argue that Eakins might be an artist who could be spoken of in the same breath as Degas—and yet the hope, I think, is there.

This hope—the hope that Eakins is one of the essential artists of the nineteenth century—hovers over the retrospective in Philadelphia. It may be whispered, or implied, or flat-out denied; but it is there. And the hope hides a scandal, the scandal of Eakins's inflation. Eakins can now be forgiven for everything except the hard fact that confronts us at every turn in this exhibition, which is that his art, whatever its many heroic qualities, pales almost to invisibility when weighed against the immense achievements of Degas or Courbet or a considerable number of other nineteenth-century European masters.

This article originally ran in the October 29, 2001 issue of the magazine.