Minor Thomas Eakins

Thomas Eakins is best known today for his group portraits of doctors, of oarsmen, and of naked boys (though he also did some pictures of fetching naked women). He establishes himself as the figure who makes heroes of professionals and athletes, his “The Gross Clinic” and “The Agnew Clinic” tributes to the drama of medical intervention, which is a topic and a theme still familiar in television hourly drama, and his images of the heroism of sports still provides the rhetoric for sports broadcasting. His portraits of the stately, pulchritudinous, no longer young, professional is the stuff of any number of photographs of captains of industry, even if somewhat replaced by the nerdy Bill Gates and the overly slick Steve Jobs. Eakins was, in fact, a very versatile artist. He also did a number of portraits using both male and female sitters, and also scenes from the fight ring, and pictures of fishermen at work. I want to focus on three of his less known paintings to show what a craftsman he was and some of the fresh things he brought to painting that went beyond the formalism of his set scenes of graybeards in their environs, at work or at leisure. Eakins drifted into fresh ways to frame his pictures and so give them a point of view.

Consider his “Oarsmen on the Schuylkill”, which is different from his other pictures of oarsmen, those either solitary figures or set against the shapes of bridges or a near river shore. In this painting, a number of things stand out for attention. The oarsmen are caught midriver and so the setting is not very important. There are prominent yellow clouds in the distance that shed their glow on the rowers below. The painting takes its stance close enough to the rowers so that their faces are each distinct, one with a beard, another with a closely cropped haircut. There are rippling reflections of the rowers in the water around them though the reflections are not accurate enough to provide the faces that can be seen directly. The oars the men use are long and look heavy to use even if they would cut through water cleanly. That makes the ordeal of rowing clear; it requires considerable strength. Moreover, rather than being skimpy, as it might seem from far away, the shell they use is portrayed as large and therefore not easy to maneuver. So this painting is not so much about the beauty of rowing or its solitary nature, which is true of some other of his portraits of rowers; it is about how the heroism of rowers is equivalent to that of warriors who take to the sea to reach far away places, even though the picture takes place on a river surrounded by the civilization of Nineteenth Century Philadelphia and faces easily imagined to belong to people who get dressed up after their exercise and go to dinner. These are gentlemen warriors or, more accurately, gentlemen posing as warriors, and taking on, for a moment, that ambiance. So the picture is a contrast in time between what is now and what can be imagined as a heroic age. It is a way to do the medievalism of Berne-Jones on a realistic basis: nothing false or made up, the past a reference drawn from a sense of history rather than a putative alternative reality, some made up Middle Ages.


The same reference to the past can be found in Eakins’ “Shad Fishing on the Gloucester” where a middle class couple with their children, their class identifiable from their clothing, have come down to the shore, along with their dog, to watch a commercial operation: fishing for shad by a large crew with a large shallow bottomed boat and extensive nets. There is a contrast here between fishing as a commercial operation and watching it as a leisure activity, and so a contrast between two social classes of people that are brought into proximity because, at least for a while, one can be going on in proximity to the other, no windows or platforms between the observers and the fishermen. The picture is of an industrial operation, even as much as a picture of a steel mill would be, because the tools--the boat, the nets-- are outsize by human standards and so are part of the new world imposed by the necessities of technology.

The Eakins picture captures the same aspect of bourgeois life as does Claude Monet in his “The Garden at Sainte Adresse” painted fourteen years earlier, in 1867. People are sitting in lawn chairs watching the busy commerce in the English Channel, which is filled with both sailing ships and steam ships. The terrace they are on is bounded by wooden lattice fences and the terrace is carefully planted on its borders and in the center of the white painted stone mat that is its base. It is decorated with two prominent flags. France is clearly ahead of Philadelphia in making its shoreline a leisure time activity. It sets boundaries and makes the looking at the harbor comfortable while in Gloucester the fishing industry is a found spectacle, nothing to separate the bourgeoisie from the people and the work at which they have come to look. But both are occasions when middle class leisure and the world of commerce are brought into proximity.

A third Eakins picture, “Between Rounds” also portrays a contrast between the observers and what is to be observed. The half-naked fighter resting in the ring between rounds is the ostensible subject of the painting, him gathering himself to go back into the fray, spread out as much as his little stool will allow. That takes up the right of the picture. The main subject of the picture, however, is to the left of center. That is the timekeeper, with his watch and his bell perched behind what seems a copyist desk. His shoes are freshly shined and his suit seems well made. His hair is neat and so is his desk. His portrait is set against the dark background of the side of the raised ring in which the fight is taking place.

The background behind both the timekeeper and the prize ring is also of interest. There is a policeman on duty, perhaps to subdue unruly crowds or, more likely, to give the crowd confidence that no rowdiness will take place, the crowd itself composed of individually distinct newsmen and spectators, that last group seeming to come from the respectable segments of the population who have come out to see the ruffians do their thing. So, in the name of entertainment, the rough crowd are surrounded by their visitors, as doesn’t change from William Hazlitt’s report of a fight in early Nineteenth Century England to those fight movies of the Thirties where respectable women would show up to share the excitement. We still have referees dress up in tuxedos so as to make this spectacle acceptable to one and all. In Eakin’s world, everything is tempered by the idea of middle class respectability, which is more important to the Victorian imagination than prudery or laissez-faire economics.

What Eakins shows, among other things, is that Realism in painting can do a lot of things other than document what transpires in life, though that is important too, as when Eakins shows that the Gloucester shore is open and unprotected from pedestrian traffic. I hadn’t known that and still don’t know for how long that situation obtained. A Realistic painting can also show the contrast between different forces in social life by providing stereotypes, however well individuated, of the various social classes as they deal with one another. That is certainly the case with both “Between Rounds” and “Shad Fishing” but it is even true of ”Oarsmen”, where dangerous matters are pursued by civilized people who will go home to that hearty dinner. Thirdly, Realism moves intellectual history on by its reconception of older themes in a new way, this time shorn of an old religion inspired awesomeness that has been replaced by the energy of modern undertakings awesome in themselves. Industry is the new religion. And the timekeeper rather than the fighters is the “hero” of the boxing match because he is the one who keeps it organized. And, fourth of all, Realism can even move forward art itself by introducing new elements into its repertoire, as happens in “Oarsmen” when it gives closeups of the rowers as well as a new sky that would be trivialized by suggesting it was religious when it is the new imagination of the late Nineteenth Century that is being invoked in a natural way without any reference to Impressionist metaphysics. Colors are not only more vivid than earlier in the century. They also are different and suggest that that is the way things really look, as in an orange sunset, rather than that being something an artist has imposed upon the scene. That is the Realism we still have with us in Hockney and other post-moderns who did not give up on representation but inflected it with new insights about the material conditions that were being portrayed in now gorgeous Technicolor.