As a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts I always felt that the great American painter and teacher Thomas Eakins (pronounced A-kins, with a long a) was a presence there, if a somewhat ghostly one.
By that I don’t mean that he walked the halls, palette in hand, offering critiques of student cast drawing from beyond the veil; just that his association with the school was as oddly strained in modern times as it was when he was studying, later teaching and eventually the director there in the late 19th Century.
On one hand the Academy of the 20th Century was proud to be associated with Eakins, who was unquestionably one of the greatest American painters; on the other hand there were the, um… controversies, with which the Academy seemed as uncomfortable in the 20th Century as it had been in the 19th, when Eakins was fired from his position for a history of insubordination to the board of directors and “improprieties”, of which the camel-back-breaking straw was the removal of a male model’s loincloth in a class of female art students.
The Academy’s web site, brushes over this whole era with a few words and little mention of controversy. Read enough biographies of Eakins and you will find mention of Eakins as a champion of the importance of the human form in art and an opponent of repressive attitudes toward teaching figure drawing, side by side with stories of rumored improprieties, rudeness, accusations of abuse and possible mental illness.
Leaving the social drama behind, you will find Eakins’ unswerving commitment to gritty realism, keen draughtsmanship, mastery of painting technique and the revelation of form through value and contrast. His mastery is evident in his portraits, including group portraits of physicians in operating theaters, artists, lawyers, and literary figures (like Walt Whitman, whose portrait by Eakins was said to be his favorite and is still in the collection of the Academy). Eakins was also a master of perspective, as often revealed in his paintings and studies of sculls on the Schuylkill River (image above, with perspective study, inset).
Although his work is highly regarded now, at the time he was something of an outcast from artistic circles. He was apparently very respected by his students, who asked him to carry on teaching after his dismissal from the Academy at drawing sessions arranged by the Philadelphia’s Art Students League.
The sessions were held at what is now the Philadelphia Sketch Club, the nation’s oldest continuing arts organization, which carries on the tradition of life drawing sessions to this day, and over the years has been a great resource for many artists and art students in Philadelphia, including this one.