Thomas Eakins, one of the great realist painters, was a Philly boy through and through. Eakins was born in Philadelphia and spent most of his life in the city. His works highlight the people and scenes of Victorian and early-20th century Philadelphia. Eakins attended art classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts: American Art & Victorian Splendor) and took anatomy and dissection classes at Jefferson Medical College. He considered becoming a surgeon, but instead used his interest in the human body to become an artist, although his skills weren’t appreciated until after his death. His surviving preparatory works, both drawings, photographs, and casts, show his attention to anatomical detail. Today the largest collection of his works are housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PAFA also houses a good collection), and includes this portrait of the artist by his wife:
After a stint studying painting in Europe, Eakins returned to his childhood home in Philadelphia (his father added the fourth story to serve as his studio), and where he joined the staff of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
His teaching methods were controversial (among other things, he preferred teaching from live nude models, rather than classical plaster casts), and in 1886 he was forced to resign after controversy arose from his removal of a male model’s loincloth during a class with female students. His use of photography as both a tool in the teaching of anatomy/fine art, and as a form of art in itself, was also controversial. He was a prolific photographer, interested not only in anatomy (there are loads of his surviving nudes – both self portraits, and students and models), but he was also an early innovator in motion photography.
Eakins painted several hundred portraits, including this rather jolly looking one of Camden, NJ resident Walt Whitman (housed at PAFA):
In 2000, one of Eakins’s largest paintings, The Gross Clinic (named for surgeon Samuel Gross), stirred controversy throughout Philadelphia when its owner, Jefferson Medical College, began negotiations to sell the painting to the National Gallery of Art/Crystal Bridges Museum of Art. Major fundraising took place and the painting is now jointly owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and PAFA. Today, it alternates being on view at each location. Although considered a masterpiece today, it was rejected for the art pavilion at the Centennial Exhibition. It was eventually hung in the Army Ward hospital on the fair grounds, where it was criticized for its realistic, graphic nature. Although this operating theater at Jefferson is long gone, you can still view the a similar on at Pennsylvania Hospital (A Look Inside America’s Oldest Hospital & the Oldest (Existing) Operating Theater in the World).
Eakins provides a connection to a Philadelphia artist of an earlier age, colonial sculptor William Rush, who is considered America’s first major American sculptor. Rush’s work can be found all around Philadelphia- in the collection of the art museum, PAFA, at the Masonic Temple, and adorning the Waterworks.
His sculpture “Water Nymph and Bittern” was created as a fountain statue for the old waterworks (where City Hall stands today). Thomas Eakins memorialized Rush in his painting, “William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River.” Today you can view the original statue and Eakins’s painting and preparatory materials at the art museum, before walking down to the river to enjoy a modern reproduction. Both Thomas Eakins and William Rush are buried in the Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia (Botany in Early Philadelphia (pt. 2): Woodlands – America’s First Neoclassical Mansion and a Victorian Cemetery).
A plaque marks the Center City location of Eakins’s studio from 1884-1900).