The Red Rose Girls. Part 3. Jessie Willcox Smith.

The third of the Red Rose Girls was Jessie Willcox Smith.  She became one of the most prominent female illustrators in the United States, during the celebrated ‘Golden Age of Illustration‘.  Jessie was the eldest of the trio, born in the Mount Airy neighbourhood of Philadelphia, on September 6th 1863, the youngest of four children.  She was the youngest daughter of Charles Henry Smith, an investment broker, and Katherine DeWitt Willcox Smith.  Her father’s profession as an “investment broker” is often questioned as although there was an investment brokerage called Charles H. Smith in Philadelphia there is no record of it being run by anybody from Jessie Smith’s family.  In the 1880 city census, Jessie’s father’s occupation was detailed as a machinery salesman.  Jessie’s family was a middle-class family who always managed to make ends meet.  Her family originally came from New York and only moved to Philadelphia just prior to Jessie’s birth.  Despite not being part of the elite Philadelphia society, her family could trace their routes back to an old New England lineage.  Jessie, like her siblings, were instructed in the conventional social graces which were considered a necessity for progression in Victorian society.   It should be noted that there were no artists within the family and so as a youngster, painting and drawing were not of great importance to her.  Instead her enjoyment was gained from music and reading.  Jessie attended the Quaker Friends Central School in Philadelphia and when she was sixteen, she was sent to Cincinnati, Ohio to live with her cousins and finish her education.

The Princess and the Goblin, by George McDonald, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith, (1920)

On completion of her education, instead of returning to the family in Philadelphia, she remained in Cincinnati to look for a job.  Jessie had always been fond of children and managed to secure a position as a kindergarten teacher which would fulfil her need for money whilst doing a job she loved.  However, the belief that all young children are angelic was soon dispelled and she found her charges obstreperous and ill-mannered and soon realised that teaching at a kindergarten was not for her.  One of her friends was interested in art and soon she had managed to inveigle Jessie into the pastime and soon she showed a certain amount of promise as a budding artist.  She remembered this change of direction writing:

“…I knew I wanted to do something with children but never thought of painting them, until an artist friend saw a sketch I had made and insisted I should stop teaching (at which I was an utter failure) and go to art school – which I did…”

John Rogers figurine

Jessie Smith returned to Philadelphia to look for some artistic training and initially wanted to study sculpture.  At the time there was a popular small table-top sculptures called Rogers Group which were relatively inexpensive, mass-produced figurines in the latter 19th which graced the parlours of homes in the United States.  These figurines, often selling for as little as $15 a piece were affordable to the middle class.  They were sculpted in more affordable plaster and painted the colour of putty to hide dust.  She did try her hand at sculpture but soon realised it needed a certain talent, one which she was lacking.  She wrote:

“…my career as a sculptor was brief for my clay had bubbles in it and burst when it was being fired. ‘Heavens’ I decided, ‘ being a sculptor is too expensive!  I will be a painter…’ ”

An illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith from A Child’s Garden of Verses is a book written by Robert Louis Stevenson

However, Jessie realised that to become a painter she needed formal artistic training and it was difficult for that to happen for a woman in 1884.  It was the age-old story.  Men who wanted to train to become professional artists had academies and teachers to support them but for women, up until the 1850’s, there were few institutions which catered for women and anyway, it was generally thought to be totally ill-advised for a woman to contemplate or prepare for a professional career, art or otherwise.  Life was mapped out for women.  Acquire certain accomplishments which would attract a man, marry that man and give him children, and then be educated at home in the skills needed to look after one’s husband and children.  For women of the middle and upper-class who were interested in art, then a private tutor could be hired but studying in mixed life-drawing classes was deemed unsuitable for women as was sketching nude statuary.

Edwin Forrest House, formerly the home of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women.

Despite this, twenty-one-year-old Jessie Willcox Smith, on October 2nd 1884, enrolled at The Philadelphia School of Design for Women, which was housed in a fashionable Philadelphia neighbourhood in an imposing mansion that had once been the home of actor, Edwin Forrest.  The School had begun when Sarah Worthington King Peter, the wife of the British consul in Philadelphia, established an industrial arts school in her home in 1848 so as to teach a trade to women, who were without a means of supporting themselves.  It was not in direct competition with the Pennsylvania Academy as its emphasis was on decorative pattern and ornament and until 1886 steered clear of controversial life-drawing classes.  After a year at the School of Design, Jessie hankered for more than it could offer her.  She wanted to study the techniques associated with Fine Art and so decided that she had to enrol at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. 

Thomas Eakins, circa 1882

She managed to persuade her parents to fund her tuition and in 1885 she enrolled in the class of the brilliant but controversial painter, Thomas Eakins.  Master and student were so different.  Jessie Willcox Smith was a conservative and shy young woman whilst her tutor was brash, carefree and provocative and cared little for the Academy’s attempt to reign him in.  Eakins represented an outrageous departure from the social norms which had structured Jessie Smith’s life.   Many complaints had been levelled at Eakins and his teaching methods especially those regarding female students.  The following year, 1886, forty-one-year-old Eakins was sacked by the Academy.   It is interesting to note that although there is no doubt her artistic ability flourished under the tutelage of Eakins she viewed him with disdain, once confiding in a friend that she thought he was a “madman”.  Jessie did attend Eakins’ life-drawing classes but of the life models used, once declared:

“…I always wished there were children in the life classes, the men and women were so flabby and fat…”

After Eakins was dismissed from the Academy, he held private classes at his studio and many of his former students attended them, but not Jessie.  She presumably did not agree with Eakins’ way of teaching and decided to remain at the Academy and study under Thomas Anshutz and James B. Kelly, two of Eakins’ former students.

Jessie Willcox Smith graduated from the Academy in June 1888.  She looked back on her time at the Academy with a certain amount of disappointment.  Although her technique had improved, she had hoped to be part of an artistic community in which artistic collaboration would be present but instead she found dissention, scandal and in the wake of the Eakins’ scandal, institutionalized isolation.  Jessie talked very little about her time at the Academy.  It had been a turbulent time and she had hated conflict as it unnerved her and made her extremely distressed.  This desperation to avoid any kind of conflict in her personal and professional life revealed itself in her idealistic and often blissful paintings.  Jessie wanted to believe life was just a period of happiness.

Illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith for the book of verse, The Seven Ages of Childhood

In 1909 a book of verse entitled The Seven Ages of Childhood by Carolyn Wells with accompanying  illustrations by Jessie Wilcox was published.

After graduation, Jessie became interested in illustration and in 1889 took a job with the advertising department of Ladies’ Home Journal, one of the leading American women’s magazines.   In 1894, nearly six years after graduating, she learned that Howard Pyle, the noted illustrator, was starting a School of Illustration at the Drexel Institute and she was accepted into the inaugural class along with Violet Oakley and Elizabeth Shippen Green.

Jessie Wilcox Smith, cover for Good Housekeeping Magazine. May 1921.

Her illustrations appeared on the covers of Good Housekeeping  resulting in most people becoming familiar with her art. For over 15 years she painted the covers for one of America’s most popular magazines. Month after month, from December of 1917 through March of 1933, a new Jessie Willcox Smith image was on the newsstands and in countless homes.

The Red Rose Girls were finally together.  In my next blog I will look at their time at the Drexel Institute with Howard Pyle and their life together.

……………………to be continued

Most of the information I used for this blog came from an excellent book by Alice A. Carter entitled The Red Rose Girls, An Uncommon Story of Art and Love.

Henry Ossawa Tanner. Part 1

Henry Ossawa Tanner. Paris 1907

In many of my previous blogs I have talked about youngsters, in centuries gone by, who had all the advantages needed to become an artist. They were male and did not have to overcome the barriers females had to hurdle over to become acknowledged painters. They were from wealthy families who could pay for their child’s best artistic tuition. They were part of an artistic family whose parents or siblings could initially tutor them, encourage them and, at the same time, introduce them to their established artist friends.  These were great advantages, not having these benefits was a disadvantage for an aspiring painter.

The nineteenth century American artist I am looking at today had one major disadvantage. He was an African American in nineteenth century America where racism was rife, and as such had to overcome problems his white contemporaries did not have to face. He, however, battled on and became the first African American painter to gain international acclaim. Welcome to the world of Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Portrait of Artists Mother by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1897)

Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in the city of Pittsburgh on June 21st 1859. His middle name was derived from the Battle of Osawatomie, an armed engagement that occurred on August 30, 1856, between pro- and anti-slavery partisans at the town of Osawatomie, Kansas. He was the eldest of nine children born to Benjamin Tucker Tanner and his wife Sarah Miller Tanner, a private school teacher, who was born into slavery in Virginia but whose mother had enabled her to escape to the North via the Underground Railroad. Tanner’s portrait of his mother in 1897, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, is a dignified depiction of the woman who brought him up. The painting with its deep hues and the large area of dead space adds drama to the painting.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Angels Appearing before the Shepherds, c. 1910

Henry was brought up in a religious setting. His father was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, the first independent black denomination in the United States. He and his family moved frequently due to him being assigned to various parishes. His father was also a political activist for the abolition of slavery. Religion always played an important role in Henry Ossawa Tanner’s life and art.

The family moved from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia in 1868 when Henry was nine years old. He attended The Promise Academy at Roberts Vaux High School, for coloured students. named after the American jurist, abolitionist, and philanthropist Roberts Vaux  It was a school which encouraged the love of art. He did well at the school and eventually graduated as the valedictorian of his class. The story goes that one day in 1872, thirteen-year-old Henry Ossawa Tanner was walking in the city’s Fairmont Park and came across an artist with his easel painting a landscape. He never forgot this meeting and determined there and then that he too would become an artist. Living in Philadelphia in the summer was a test for everybody. The temperature and the humidity were extremely high and everyday living became onerous. The Tanner family, like many others tried to escape the humid conditions by going to the seaside and experience the cooling Atlantic breeze. Young Henry enjoyed these seaside trips and found plenty of subjects to paint. Some of his sketches were seen by the Philadelphia artists, Henry Price, who offered young Henry a one-year apprenticeship at his Philadelphia studio. It was here that Tanner began to learn about art.

The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water by Henry Ossawa Tanner (ca. 1907)

However, his father had other ideas as he was doubtful that a career in art was a suitable occupation for his son. With that in mind he arranged for Henry to start an apprenticeship as a miller in a flour mill. Henry Tanner was a delicate young man whose health was never resilient throughout his life and working in the flour mill proved too strenuous and he became seriously ill. Tanner was confined to his home to recuperate. Much of the time during this period of isolation was spent sketching. Once he had recovered, and was freed from home-based isolation, he would often take trips to Rainbow Lake in the Adirondack Mountains where the air was cleaner. He would also go down to the sunnier and warmer climate of Florida. He was pleased when he could get out of the family house and could not wait to be able to start sketching and painting. Tanner began to paint landscape and seascape scenes.

Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1885)

His artwork must have reached a good standard as at the age of twenty-one, he passed the entrance examination to the Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts in 1880. It was here that he received the finest art tuition from the likes of the great American realist painter, Thomas Eakins. The artwork and teachings of Eakins were to have a great influence on Tanner for the rest of his life. He remained a student there, off-and-on, until 1885. Tanner exhibited some of his early works in New York in 1885 and the following year he opened his own studio in Philadelphia. Once again, Henry and his family would often head towards the New Jersey coast in the summer to avoid the stifling heat of Philadelphia. During those hot summer days Henry completed a painting entitled Sand Dunes at Sunset. Over a century later, in 1995, it became the first painting by an African American artist to be acquired by the White House.

The Young Sabot Maker by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Tanner left the Pennsylvania Academy prior to graduating as he wanted to set himself up in business and in 1888 an opportunity arose in Atlanta, Georgia for him to establish his own art and photography gallery. His idea was to set up a modest gallery where he would attempt to earn a semi-artistic living by selling drawings, making photographs, and teaching art classes at the city’s private Methodist, historically black, university Clark Atlanta University. Through Tanner’s connection with the Methodist Church he came in contact with Joseph Crane Hartzell who was an American Missionary Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  Joseph Hartzell and his wife became his main white patrons over the next several years. In spite of his efforts, Tanner’s Atlanta studio failed and, in the summer of 1888, Henry sold the business.

Spinning by Firelight – The Boyhood of George Washington Gray by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1894)

Henry Tanner left Atlanta and moved to Highlands, North Carolina, a town in Macon County in North Carolina.  The town is located on a high plateau within the larger Blue Ridge Mountains. He had moved there with the idea that he could make some money from his photographs and paintings. He also believed that the clean mountain air would be good for his well-being. After staying at Highlands during the summer of 1888, he returned to Atlanta and taught drawing for two years at Clark Atlanta University. In a conversation Henry Tanner had with Bishop Hartzell and his wife, he told them about his desire to go to Europe and study art in Rome. They believed it to be a good idea and they arranged to have an exhibition of his work at a gallery in Cincinnati in the Autumn of 1890 and from the sale of his work his trip to Europe would be paid for.

The exhibition was held but unfortunately none of Tanner’s paintings sold. He was devastated. However, the bishop and his wife came to his rescue and bought all the paintings ! Henry Tanner now had the funds to travel to Europe. Tanner eventually set sail for Europe in January 1891. He stayed for a short time in Liverpool and London and then travelled to Paris. He was so impressed by the art scene of the French capital. To him, the French artistic world was much more cutting-edged than that of America’s art world, so much so that he abandoned his plans to travel to Rome and put roots down in the French capital. Once settled in Paris, Tanner enrolled in the Académie Julian and studied under Jean-Paul Laurens, a French painter and sculptor, and one of the last major exponents of the French Academic style and Jean Joseph Benjamin-Constant, a French painter and etcher best known for his Oriental subjects and portraits. He also joined the American Art Students Club of Paris.

In 1893, Tanner went back to the United States to deliver a paper on African Americans and art at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In this same year, he created one of his famous works The Banjo Lesson while he was in Philadelphia.  His depiction incorporated a series of sketches he had made while visiting the Blue Ridge Mountains, four years earlier. The sketches he had made during the summer of 1888 had opened his eyes to the poverty of African Americans living in Appalachia.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893

The setting is inside a cramped log cabin with the cool glow of a hearth fire casting the scene’s only light source from right corner, enveloping the man and the boy in a rectangular pool of light across the floor. The young boy holds the banjo in both hands. He looks down, completely focused on the task ahead. His grandfather holds the banjo up gently with his left hand so that the boy is not hampered by its weight, yet it is also clear that the grandfather expects the young boy to appreciate the music he is producing although it may be hard work.

Woman from the French West Indies by Henry Ossawa Tanner (ca. 1891)

When he arrived back in his homeland, he was respected as an artist but despite this recognition and the honours and prizes he received for his art, his paintings were often displayed separately from those of his white colleagues. In 1895 he returned to in Paris, saying that he could not fulfil his artistic aspirations while fighting discrimination in America. Tanner lived over half of the rest of his life in France, saying that he was able to find an expansive and more accepting environment, free from the racial strife which he encountered in America.

The Thankful Poor by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1894)

In 1894 Tanner completed another memorable work. It was entitled The Thankful Poor. It was an oil painting depicting an elderly black man sitting down to supper with a teenage boy. Their heads are bowed in prayer, thanking The Lord for the food they were about to eat. The table is plain and the food upon it is meagre, but Tanner has captured their thankfulness. Whilst Tanner has painted the two figures in great detail, the rest of the scene, such as the wall and the tablecloth seem to just blend in the light. This warm light which streams through the window onto the wall helps to enrich the spiritual quality of the painting. The bright light shines on the young boy’s face and illuminates the boy’s deliberations, devotion, and gratitude for having food to eat. Look how Tanner has portrayed poverty in the way he depicted the man’s coarse hands and the boy’s scruffy clothes.
Around the mid 1890’s, Henry Tanner strong religious beliefs became more apparent in his works. He was determined that the biblical stories he knew and loved should feature in his artwork. He once said:

“…my effort has been not only to put the Biblical incident in the original setting…but at the same time give the human touch…to convey to my public the reverence and elevation these subjects impart to me…”

Daniel in the Lion’s Den by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1896)

Impressionism had been at the height of its popularity in the 1870’s and Tanner was Influenced by colours used by the Impressionists. He was also inspired by the works of the Symbolists. A classic example of his work at the time was his 1896 painting Daniel in the Lion’s Den which won an honourable mention at the Paris Salon of 1896. In this depiction, Daniel is incarcerated in a den of lions. He was being punished for refusing to pray to King Darius of Persia. The late evening light streams through an upper window of his dark prison cell lighting up the lower body of Daniel and highlights his arms crossed on his lap whilst besides him is the exceptionally large head of one of the lions. There is a calmness about the figure of Daniel which underlines his spiritual belief in what he is doing. The shades of blue/green offer us a picture of serenity. The painting, which was the first to be exhibited at the Salon by an African American, was highly praised by the art critics and received international recognition. This was Tanner’s first major religious painting and indicated the direction that his art would take.

Le Grand Inquisiteur chez les rois catholiques by Jean-Paul Laurens

The choice of a religious subject may have been inspired initially by his teacher Jean-Paul Laurens, his former tutor at Académie Julian, who was noted for dramatic biblical paintings and who had depicted a similar scene of incarceration in his painting, Le Grand Inquisiteur chez les rois catholiques, a copy of which Tanner had owned. A later version of this painting can be found at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard.

..……to be continued.

Portrait of Maud Cook by Thomas Eakins

Portrait of Maud Cook by Thomas Eakins (1895)

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.

The Concert Singer by Thomas Eakins

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.


The Champion Single Sculls by Thomas Eakins

The Champion Single Skulls by Thomas Eakins (1881)

I had planned that this single blog would be all about the American artist Thomas Eakins and I had decided on which painting I would feature.  However whilst researching the life and works of this great painter I came across another painting of his which I fell in love with and decided that I could not pass up the opportunity of highlighting that particular work of art as well, so I have decided to split Eakins’ life story over two blogs which gives me the opportunity to feature not just one of his paintings, but two.

Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins was born in Philadelphia in 1844.  He was the eldest child of five children of Caroline Cowperthwait Eakins, whose ancestors were part English and part Dutch, and Benjamin Eakins, who was the son of a Scottish-Irish weaver.  Thomas Eakins was brought up in a loving family environment and had a close and caring relationship with his father.  Father and son both loved sporting activities and they would often go out swimming together in the nearby river and when the harsh winters set in and the river froze over they would go ice skating.  It was also Thomas Eakins’ father who introduced him to the world of rowing, which he would enjoy as a sport and also depict in many of his paintings.  His father was also very interested in art and had many artist friends and would spend much time discussing art with his son.

Benjamin Eakins was a calligrapher and writing master and as such would spend hours pouring over parchment documents which he had to inscribe.   Thomas would watch his father at work and by the age of twelve became competent in line drawing, perspective and the grid work which was the needed in formulating designs and it was a technique that Eakins would sometimes use in his own artwork in the future.   Thomas Eakins attended the Central High School, a public secondary school in Philadelphia. The school still exists to this day and is regarded as one of the top public schools in America due to its high academic standards.  Here Eakins studied many subjects including mechanical drawing at which he proved an excellent student.   In 1861, at the age of seventeen, Thomas Eakins enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art where he studied drawing and anatomy.  In 1864 he transferred to the Jefferson Medical College where he once again studied anatomy and at one time considered the medical profession as his future.

In 1866, aged twenty-two, he travelled to Europe to study art and remained there for four years.  Whilst in Paris he studied under the French realist painter Jean-Leon Gérome and worked as an apprentice at the atelier of the portrait painter, Léon Bonnat.  It was under his tutorship that Eakins learnt the importance of anatomical accuracy in paintings and a technique he would adhere to in his own future works.   He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris but like so many who studied there he railed against what he looked upon as that establishment’s classical pretentiousness.  He was also critical with regards the Academy’s treatment of nudity which was always couched in classical or mythological settings.   In William Innes Homer’s 1992 biography of Eakins entitled, Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art, he quotes from a letter Thomas wrote to his father in which he expressed his criticism, he 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…”

From Paris he travelled to Spain and became influenced by the works of the great Spanish painters such as Velazquez and Ribera which he saw in the Prado.  He returned home to Philadelphia in 1870 and set about working on a series of oil paintings and watercolours, which featured rowing scenes and portraits of champion rowers.  However this depiction of such a modern sport in paintings was reported to have shocked the more staid and conservative local artistic establishment.

The featured painting in My Daily Art Display today is one of this series of paintings featuring rowing scenes.  It is entitled The Champion Single Sculls sometimes known as Max Schmitt in a Single Skull and was completed by Thomas Eakins in 1871.  The setting is the Schuylkill River that meanders quietly through Philadelphia and which is an ideal venue for rowing.  The central figure in this painting is the champion oarsman, Max Schmitt, a childhood friend of Eakins and who, like Eakins, had attended the Central High School.  Max Schmitt, a lawyer, was by far the best oarsman in Philadelphia at the time and had won, against formidable opposition, the first ever single skulls championship on the Schuylkill in 1867 and his friend Eakins sent him a congratulatory telegram from Paris.

The painting is not of the race itself but simply depicts the moustachioed Schmitt taking a break from his training session.  The rower rests and turns to face.  His oars cause a ripple on the surface of the river as they continue to skim across the water.   Schmitt and his racing scull are reflected on the mirror-like surface of the river.  To become a successful oarsmen one needs to have upper body strength and we can see how Eakins has depicted the toned muscular torso of Schmitt.

In the middle ground of the painting we see another oarsman and this is Eakins himself, who is rowing at speed away from us.  His name and the date are inscribed on his boat but it is difficult to make this out in the attached picture.  The name of Schmitt’s scull is much easier to read.  It is Josie which was named after his sister.  Another rowing boat can be seen in the background with its two rowers and a coxswain all of whom are wearing Quaker clothes.   Just beyond them we see the stone arches of the Connecting Railroad Bridge with a steam train just about to cross its span.  Further back is the first Girard Avenue Bridge, behind which we can just make out a steamboat chugging up the river.

Although at first glimpse we presume the setting is somewhere in the countryside, it is not, as the Schuylkill  River runs through Fairmount Park, which at the time was the largest urban park in America and would be the site of the 1876 Universal Exposition.