Great American painter Thomas Eakins born

Thomas Eakins' first important work, "The Champion Single Sculls" from 1871, was set on the Schuylkill. The scene he depicted is remarkably unchanged 140 years later. (File Photo)

Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins was one of the greatest American artists of the 19th century.

Born in Philadelphia on July 25, 1844, he graduated from Central High School and immediately went to study drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1862-1866) and anatomy at Jefferson Medical College. His interest in anatomy and athletics helps explain his preoccupation with scientific realism relating to human and animal forms, and is reflected in his famous paintings of rowing, sailing, fishing and boxing, among other activities in which the human body is in motion.

Eakins was among the first generation of American artists who flocked to Paris for artistic training. With his father's support, he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts from 1866 to 1869. There, he was strongly influenced by 17th-century masters, who impressed him with their realism and psychological penetration.

Eakins returned to Philadelphia in 1870 and established a studio at the same home in which he had grown up. He and his wife lived there (1729 Mt. Vernon Street) off the modest investment income he received from his father.

Unlike his contemporaries, Eakins was determined to apply Beaux-Arts techniques to distinctly American subjects that reflected his own experience. He depicted people and places he observed in the life around him in Philadelphia, as well as domestic scenes of family and friends.

His two controversial paintings of famous surgeons in their operating amphitheaters are The Gross Clinic (1875) and The Agnew Clinic (1889). These large and powerful hospital scenes combined sharp realism with psychological acuity in the portrayal of the surgeons at work.

Less controversial but equally detailed is The Champion Single Sculls, better known as Max Schmitt in a Single Scull. Completed in 1870 upon Eakins' return from Europe, this oil on canvas was the painter's first great work. It depicts a friend of Eakins in a small racing boat on the Schuylkill River just east of the Girard Avenue Bridge. The painting, which even includes the then-26 year old Eakins as a rower directly behind Max Schmitt, is now owned by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Eakins began teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1876 and later became its director. He introduced an innovative curriculum, including the study of anatomy, dissection and scientific perspective, which revolutionized the teaching of art in America.

However, his insistence on study from the nude outraged school managers, who forced him to resign in 1886. His dismissal and accompanying charges and insinuations of immorality deeply hurt him.

During his later career, Eakins concentrated on portraits of friends, scientists, musicians, artists and clergymen. These portraits focus on the subjects' personality and psychology, through uncompromising realism and by a sculptural sense of form.

Eakins also made small sculptural models for figures in his paintings and produced several full-scale anatomical casts. He executed eight original pieces, some in very high relief, almost in the round.

In addition, Eakins was one of the earliest American artists to make photography an integral part of his creative process. This is not all that surprising, as Philadelphia was the center of photographic activity in the United States during the 19th century. 

Eakins had a profound influence on American naturalism, both as painter and teacher. His realistic approach to painting was ahead of his time.  Unfortunately, none of his paintings brought him any substantial popular or financial success. He died at his family home on June 25, 1916.

Many books have been written about him.  See Darrel Sewell, Thomas Eakins: Artist of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1982) for a fine survey of Eakins' work.