Saturday, July 11, 2009

by William S. McFeely

It was not until twelve years after his death that Thomas Eakins finally received the recognition that he so deserved. The Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired a huge amount of his paintings donated by Susan MacDowell Eakins, the largest gift a museum had ever received on one artist.
Growing up in the nineteenth century, Thomas was a true Renaissance man. He excelled at everything he put his mind to. Central High School, in Philadelphia, known as the "People's College," put that talent to work. He was fascinated with anatomy, medicine, mechanical engineering and of course drawing and gave the valedictory address at his graduation.
Eakins went off to Paris and then later, Spain, to study art. His fluency in seven languages made him easily fit in.
He returned to Philadelphia and eventually became a teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
In Portrait William S. McFeely delves into homosexuality (depicted in Eakins' most famous work Swimming); depression (inherited from his mother); relationships among his wife, Thoreau, Walt Whitman, his family; the pervasive sadness that Eakins' portraits seemed to portray.
There are black-and-white drawings, photographs and sixteen pages of color plates.
In three of his paintings, Thomas Eakins is in the artwork: Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, Swimming, and The Gross Clinic.
Well-researched (the author is a historian and wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Grant) and revealing, the book is an important work of a true realist.