American Realist painter, photographer and sculptor Thomas Eakins is regarded as one of the masters of American Realism or “Scientific Realism”, as some historians would refer to it. His integrity as an artist was the driving force for his intensive study of the human form and its geometric perspective. It allowed him to portray his subjects in a profound and honest manner that became an inspiration for a new generation of realist painters.
Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins was born in Philadelphia on July 25th 1844, to a calligrapher who lettered certificates and diplomas, and taught penmanship. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where they sketched the human body by using forms made from plaster casts. He enrolled at the Jefferson Medical College and took regular courses in anatomy in an effort to examine the human body from a different perspective. His studies in that field sparked a lifelong interest in scientific realism.
In 1866, Thomas Eakins moved to Paris where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts for three years. He found inspiration in Jean-Léon Gérôme’s exquisite life drawings, Léon Bonnat’s portraiture, and A. A. Dumont’s sculptures. While searching for his own truth, he found a way to combine his learned skills from the French academic style of painting which stresses correctness and tightness of drawing, with the bolder, less restrictive methods he observed in the works of such Spanish artists as Josepe de Ribera and Diego Velázquez.
Thomas Eakins returned to Philadelphia in July, 1870. He began to paint outdoor scenes of his native city and domestic genre representations of his family and friends. His preoccupation for portraying subjects in motion brought his art to a new level; some of his most popular paintings came from this period.
Eakins’ most famous painting ‘The Gross Clinic’ (1875) aroused controversy because of its depiction of a surgical procedure. When he submitted it to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the committee refused it for its brutal nature; consequently, it was consigned to the U.S. Army Post Hospital Exhibit.
In 1876, Thomas Eakins began teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His teaching methods, which were comprised of the study of human anatomy and dissection, as well as scientific perspective, revolutionized the way art was taught in America. However, his resignation was demanded by school council members when he made the bold move of removing the loin cloth from one of his male models to allow the class a more accurate and intense study of the male form.
In order to capture his subjects more realistically, Eakins used photographs as an aid. One of the earliest American artists to integrate photography into the painting process, he painted friends, scientists, musicians, artists, and clergymen. Thomas Eakins lived out the rest of his life in Philadelphia until his death on June 25, 1916. Although none of his paintings ever brought him financial success or popularity while he was alive (only thirty paintings were sold during his lifetime), he will always be remembered for portraying the complexities of American life at the turn of the century.