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: A Portrait by Thomas Eakins


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The recent purchase of a portrait by Thomas Eakins brings to the Institute the work of a man whom it has long wanted to have represented in its permanent collection. One of the great figures in American painting, his caliber was slow in being recognized, and when an exhibition of his paintings was held here in 1923 he was still considered an ‘ugly’ painter by most people. In the years that have elapsed since that time the fundamental honesty, the strength and sound craftsmanship of his work have emerged more and more clearly, while the superficial virtues of some of those who surpassed him in the public estimation of his day have endured less successfully the test of time. His reputation, on the contrary, has grown with the years, and his significance in the evolution of American painting was strikingly revealed in the Homer-Ryder-Eakins Exhibition shown at the Museum of Modern Art in the early years of the past decade.Eakins achieved his greatest success in the field of portraiture—even such works as the Gross and Agnew Clinics derive their chief interest from the characters portrayed—and the Institute’s painting is in his most characteristic style. It is a portrait of Elizabeth L. Burton, painted by Eakins in 1906 and presented to the sitter shortly before his death.The painting is a three-quarter length figure, somewhat less than life size. Miss Burton is shown standing with her right arm supported on the back of a chair, and her left hand on her hip. She faces the observer, with her head bent slightly and her eyes fixed in thought. She wears a greyish-blue silk dress with a shirred bodice and voluminous, shirred full-length sleeves. The low neck of the dress is trimmed with a ruching of cocoa-brown silk, and a narrow band of the same color edges a deep, pointed girdle that fastens with buttons. Wound three times around Miss Burton’s neck is a gold chain with a small locket falling just below the base of the throat.The figure is firm and rounded beneath the rather elaborate dress, and the head is full of character. The high brow, under a mass of soft brown hair, the well-set eyes, and the straight nose above a full, revealing mouth, are finely drawn and illustrate Eakins’ penetrating insight into character. This is an individual, and not just the picture of another woman. One feels that she is courageous and understanding, and that even in the face of unhappiness or defeat she would make the best of her life. In painting her, Eakins did not gloss over the plainness of her face nor the ungainliness of her hands. He looked beyond them, and depicted what he saw beneath the surface.It was his uncompromising honesty that made him so great a portraitist; so unpopular a portraitist too, it may be added. Few people can stand the revelation of themselves as they are, and many of his sitters were disappointed, disillusioned, or enraged at what he made of them. Frequently he presented his portraits to the men or women who had sat for them, for he never had very many commissions, and the pictures were often stowed away in attics and sometimes destroyed. When a catalogue of Eakins’ work was being prepared, one woman answered an inquiry concerning her father’s portrait with the reply that “it was so unsatisfactory that we destroyed it, not wishing his descendants to think of their grandfather as resembling such a portrait.”It must not be thought that Eakins was perverse or malicious in his portrayals. He had, rather, the impersonal attitude of the scientist, neither cruel nor kind, and he was always more interested in fundamentals than in externals. For him, beauty lay in form and structure, and the essential likeness of a subject was that which lay hidden to a more casual eye. He had the power and integrity to paint not only what he saw, but the indefinable spirit that animated and informed what he saw.His temperament and his time, as well as his ability as an artist, contributed to his greatness as a portraitist, and his work is essentially of his period. His feeling for style makes it possible to date his portraits almost exactly. He was interested in clothes, seeing in them another facet of a subject’s character. He liked to paint women in their finest gowns, but whether in formal or informal attire, his sitters were always comfortable in their clothes and wore them naturally; not as garments of which they had no intimate knowledge and in which they were ill at ease.Eakins made no concessions to mere beauty, painting women as truthfully and as impersonally as men. Yet, perhaps because of his own personal conflict with the conventions of the time, he regarded them with deep sympathy, and put into his portrayals of them something of the resignation, frustration, and despair to which the social taboos of the day condemned them. Their faces, more their clothes, make them important as social documents of the late nineteenth century, while the dark, heavy interiors in which they are depicted give a perfect picture of the taste of the period. Mahogany and walnut furniture, red plush draperies and upholstery, and dark, patterned rugs play their own part in Eakins’ interpretation of character.The spirit of the time is accentuated in Eakins’ work by his use of color. It was always low in key and limited in range, suggesting the rather somber aspect of the personalities he depicted. But he used it brilliantly, having a perfect understanding of its tonal values and its relation to form. He applied it in the manner of the old masters, with successive paintings and glazes, giving his surfaces richness and depth. At a time when most of his contemporaries were interested in light for its own sake, Eakins’ chief interest remained in form. To him light was a means of revealing form; of giving it substance and texture—an attitude that shows the preference for the eternal rather than the transitory aspect of things.In refusing to capitulate to the accepted trend of his time; in remaining steadfast to his own beliefs, Eakins remained an individualist to the end. He was a true realist, painting the people and things closest to his own experience, and doing it with an honesty and objective power that remind one of some of the terribly revealing characterizations of Flaubert. That he preserved his integrity in the face of indifference, scorn, and open hostility is not to be wondered at, considering the nature of the man. He believed in himself and in his art, and he went his own way, only occasionally finding himself embittered over his reception by the public.Eakins was born in Philadelphia in 1844. His father was a writing master, who was comfortably enough off so that Eakins never had to depend on his painting for a living. The boy showed a talent for drawing at an early age, and after he left High School decided definitely on art as his career. He began his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy, where he was allowed to copy from the collection of casts and paintings, and to attend lectures on anatomy. The teaching was haphazard, students being given little opportunity to draw from life, and he found it slow and tiresome. Of his own accord he decided to study anatomy seriously, since that was one branch of art in which he could be professionally instructed. He joined the classes at Jefferson Medical College, where he gained a knowledge of the subject unequaled in the average artist of his time. When, after several years of this combined artistic and scientific education, he decided to continue his studies in Paris, he was well grounded in drawing from the antique, in perspective, and in anatomy, of which he had an exceptional knowledge.In Paris he was admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts without undue delay, and began his studies with Gérôme, one of the outstanding academic figures of his day. He was soon promoted to the life class, and began shortly, for the first time, to work with the brush. It was not long before he felt at home with this medium, and he attacked the problems of light and color with characteristic energy. When he finally left Europe for home, after a few months in Spain in 1869, he felt that he had learned all he could and must now begin to practice his art.At home again, he began at once to paint, drawing upon the material around him for his subjects. He painted all the members of his family, his friends, and scenes of the outdoor life he loved. He was one of the first to paint American life as he saw it. From the first he was a realist, depicting what he looked upon with intense truth. His style and choice of subject were strange to the tastes of his time; ugly and uncompromising compared with the pretty views of foreign lands and the sentimentality of the salon painters then being pushed by the first American dealers. He received little attention of any kind until he produced the Gross Clinic, a painting that aroused a storm of controversy, but he remained undaunted in the face of public opinion, pursuing his own ideas.Even when he felt impelled to resign from the directorship of the Pennsylvania Academy, because of a baseless scandal resulting from his insistence on the nude as the one real basis for the study of art, he was philosophical.He was little concerned with the art politics of his day, and while he was one of the early members of the so-called radical Society of American Artists, never took much part in the struggle then being waged by the academicians and the young, progressive group of painters just beginning to return from their studies in Europe. He exhibited whenever and wherever possible, but opportunities for showing were few, and since he had no New York dealer he was not widely known.In was not until 1896, when the Carnegie Institute inaugurated its International Exhibitions, that his worth began to be recognized. For several years he was a member of the jury of awards, and he showed regularly at the Carnegie. At the Paris Exposition of 1900 he received an honorable mention, and in 1902 the National Academy of Design made him first an associate and then an academician. Only after his death, however, when the Metropolitan Museum held a memorial exhibition of his work, did his significance in American painting begin to become clear. Philadelphia, realizing too late its shameful neglect of a native son, held a bigger and better exhibition. In 1923 the New York galleries began to exhibit Eakins’ works, and early in the 1930s the Museum of Modern Art organized the show that revealed Homer, Eakins, and Ryder, as the three great figures of nineteenth-century American painting. Today Eakins’ reputation is still growing, and his personality, splendidly revealed in Lloyd Goodrich’s Thomas Eakins, from which many of the above facts were drawn, is becoming a familiar one in the history of American art.Referenced Work of Art
  1. Portrait of Elizabeth L. Burton by Thomas Eakins
    American, 1844-1916. Dunwoody Fund
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Source: "A Portrait by Thomas Eakins," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 29, no. 5 (February, 1940): 22-25.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009