As promised in my last blog, today I will complete the life story of the great American artist Thomas Eakins and look at another of his paintings, this time a portrait. If you have just landed on this page maybe you would like to go back to my previous blog in which I started talking about Eakins’ early life and had a look at his famous painting entitled The Champion Single Sculls, a perfectly rendered quiet picture of a rower on the Schuylkill River which he completed in 1871.
After his four year stay in Europe, Eakins had returned to America and the city of Philadelphia where he remained to the end of his life. He once again attended the Jefferson Medical College and resumed his anatomical studies and in 1878 he took up a teaching post as a volunteer at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The following year he was appointed Professor of Painting and Drawing and in 1882 he became director of the artistic establishment. On January 19, 1884, he married Susan Hannah Macdowell, a student at the academy. She was, well known in the artistic community. She was 25 when Eakins met her at the Hazeltine Gallery in Philadelphia, where his painting, The Gross Clinic was being exhibited in 1875. This was to be his most famous picture and at the time aroused controversy because of its detailed depiction of a surgical operation. Unlike many, Susan MacDowell was impressed by the controversial painting and she decided to study with him at the Academy, which she attended for 6 years. Her own artwork became more sober and her painting style became of a more realistic style similar to Eakins. She was an outstanding student and winner of the Mary Smith prize for the best painting by a matriculating woman artist.
Once she married Eakins she all but gave up her art as most of her time was spent in supporting her husband’s career, being the perfect hostess when they entertained and during the difficult times after Eakins left the Academy she never wavered in her support for him, unlike some of his family and so-called friends. The couple did not have children but it was thought they lived a happy and contented life. She and Eakins both shared a passion for photography, both as photographers and subjects, and employed it as a tool for their art. She also posed nude for many of his photos and took images of him. Both had separate studios in their home.
In the previous blog I talked about Eakins disenchantment with the École des Beaux-Arts and their treatment of nudity. He had definite views on the subject and once wrote:
“…She [the female nude] is the most beautiful thing there is in the world except a naked man, but I never yet saw a study of one exhibited… It would be a godsend to see a fine man model painted in the studio with the bare walls, alongside of the smiling smirking goddesses of waxy complexion amidst the delicious arsenic green trees and gentle wax flowers & purling streams running melodious up & down the hills especially up. I hate affectation…”
Eakins was a fervent believer that the male and female nude were things of beauty and nude models should be available to his students for them to complete their life drawing studies. He was attacked for his radical ideas, particularly his insistence on working from nude models. Eakins’s work photographing and painting nudes made him something of a liability for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he taught and it all came to a head in 1886 when he was forced to resign after allowing a class of both male and female students to draw from a completely nude male model.
Thomas Eakins, who by the 1880s had only managed to sell nine pictures for a total of $2,000 now decided to concentrate on portraiture. However, portraiture commissions were equally hard to come by and most of his portraiture works were of his friends and individuals who he admired and offered to paint them without payment. My Daily Art Display painting today is an example of this. My featured painting today is entitled Portrait of Maud Cook. It is such a beautifully haunting portrait which Thomas Eakins completed in 1895 and is looked upon as one of his finest work of portraiture. In 1892, Eakins had already completed portraits of Maud’s sister Weda Cook, the operatic contralto singer, one of which was entitled The Concert Singer.
Thomas Eakins’ paintings were known for being both scientifically and philosophically accurate. For Eakins, portraiture held little interest as a means of fashionable idealization. There was to be no glorification of how people looked. There was to be no hint of making the person look more beautiful or younger than they actually were. Unlike most other portrait painters of the time, Eakins had little concern for flattering his sitters and instead demanded from himself the most precise objective images. The results were comprehensive and revealing portraits that seemed to carry with them the souls of their subjects. Eakins refused to compromise and painted his subjects as they really were, and not as they wished to be seen. However, it was precisely for this reason that his portraits were often rejected by the sitters or their families.
Eakins having studied anatomy and later taught it to his students applied this knowledge to the proportions of the human form in his work. He also had a certain gift for capturing the real embodiment of the person, which many artists strove for but often failed to achieve.
In this portrait of the twenty-five year old Maud Cook we see her wearing a pink dress the fabric of which flows from her shoulders and is pinned between her breasts. Her hair is long and lies, tied with a ribbon, at the back of her neck. Her face is tilted slightly towards the source of light which comes from the left of the painting. Such light casts deep shadows across her face and reveals her facial structure. There is a warmth in the light which illuminates the exposed skin of her neck and upper chest bringing to the painting a demure sensuality. The expression on the young woman’s face is both captivating and haunting. Is it a look of sadness or thoughtfulness? In many of Eakins’ portraits of women he focused on their susceptibility and emotional sensitivity. Is this what he has achieved with this work? Eakins gave the painting to Maud Cook and inscribed it on the back and carved frame:
“To his friend/Maude Cook/Thomas Eakins/1895”
Years later, Maud Cook described the portrait to the artist’s biographer:
“…As I was just a young girl my hair is done low in the neck and tied with a ribbon. Mr. Eakins never gave the painting a name but said to himself it was like ‘a big rosebud…'”
The painting was later bought by the newspaper publisher and art collector, Stephen Carlton Clark, who on his death bequeathed the painting to Yale University Art Gallery where it remains today.
The American artist Robert Henri, who had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1886 to 1888 and knew Eakins, wrote an open letter about him to the Art Students League a year after the artist’s death. In it he described the great man:
“…Thomas Eakins was a man of great character. He was a man of iron will and his will to paint and to carry out his life as he thought it should go. This he did. It cost him heavily but in his works we have the precious result of his independence, his generous heart and his big mind. Eakins was a deep student of life, and with a great love he studied humanity frankly. He was not afraid of what his study revealed to him. In the matter of ways and means of expression, the science of technique, he studied most profoundly, as only a great master would have the will to study. His vision was not touched by fashion. He struggled to apprehend the constructive force in nature and to employ in his works the principles found. His quality was honesty. Integrity is the word which seems best to fit him. Personally I consider him the greatest portrait painter America has produced…”
It was only during the final years of his life that Eakins began to receive a little bit of the recognition he deserved. He died in 1916 in the Philadelphia home in which he was born. As is the case with many great artists, Eakins’ fame is almost entirely posthumous. Eakins had struggled to make a living from his work which is somewhat ironic as his painting The Gross Clinic fetched US$ 68 million in 2006. Today Thomas Eakins is regarded as one of the most important American artists of any period.
After his death in 1916, his wife returned to painting, adding considerably to her output right up to the 1930s. Her artistic style changed becoming much warmer, looser, and brighter in tone. She died in 1938.