Thomas Eakins

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Eakins, Thomas

(ā`kĭnz), 1844–1916, American painter, photographer, and sculptor, b. Philadelphia, where he worked most of his life. Eakins is considered the foremost American portrait painter and one of the greatest artists of the 19th cent.

Early Career

Eakins studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and anatomy at Jefferson Medical College (now Thomas Jefferson Univ.). In Paris from 1866 until 1870, he studied with Gérôme and Bonnat and with the sculptor A. A. Dumont. He visited Spain, where he was drawn to the works of Velázquez. From 1870 he taught at the Pennsylvania Academy, where he was harshly criticized for his teaching innovations: he insisted on working from live, nude models, on learning anatomy from dissection, on learning motion by watching athletes perform, and on working in oils. His refusal to abandon the use of nude models forced his resignation in 1886.

Approach and Influence

Eakins sought, above all, to describe honestly the reality of what he saw, attempting to "peer deeper into the heart of American life." He felt that no formula of ideal beauty could compare with what is real and refused the temptation to see what, according to fashion, he ought to. His portraits were not flattering; they were penetrating and often disappointed his sitters. His painstaking study of anatomy and geometric perspective served his ambition to grasp and define exterior reality in paint, while his remarkable honesty of approach provided him a view of the interior realities of human character. His perception and mode of illumination of the human face are frequently likened to those of Rembrandt.

In a period when many artists were concerned with the exotic or deliberately picturesque, Eakins succeeded in recording the everyday world about him with insight and profound humanity. Eakins revived the art of portraiture in the United States and, through his influence as a teacher, founded a native school of American art, visible in the works of his pupils Henri, Sloan, Glackens, and Sterne, and more recently in the work of new generations of realist painters.

Photography and Sculpture

From the 1880s on Eakins used photographyphotography, still,
science and art of making permanent images on light-sensitive materials.

See also photographic processing; motion picture photography; motion pictures.
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 in many ways. He employed it as an art in its own right, which he used to make powerful studies of family and friends, animals and rural scenes. He used it as an aid to accuracy in painting for himself and his classes, either as an inspiration for a related work or by copying directly (until about 1886 he sometimes secretly traced images onto canvas from projected photographs, a technique that was not confirmed until the early 21st cent.). He also made use of photography to study motion, devising for Eadweard MuybridgeMuybridge, Eadweard
, 1830–1904, English-born photographer and student of animal locomotion. Muybridge changed his name from Edward James Muggeridge. A gifted and obsessed eccentric, he was a photographic innovator who left a vast and enormously varied body of work.
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 a camera which, by means of a revolving disk over the lens, could make several exposures on a single plate, and thereby aid in understanding movement in human beings and in animals, in everyday and athletic motion. He also adapted Muybridge's animal studies for use in a zoetrope, a precursor of the motion picture projector. Eakins's few works in sculpture include the horses on the Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Arch, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Notable Works

Only toward the very end of his life was Eakins recognized as a major painter. Among his most notable works are The Surgical Clinic of Professor Gross (1875; Philadelphia Mus. and Pennsylvania Acad., Philadelphia), the realism of which caused a scandal when it was finished; The Clinic of Professor Agnew (1889; Univ. of Pennsylvania); The Concert Singer (1892; Pennsylvania Acad.); The Chess Players (1876) and The Thinker (1900; both: Metropolitan Mus.); and the portraits of Mrs. Frishmuth (1900; Philadelphia Mus.) and Miss Van Buren (1891; Phillips Coll., Washington, D.C.). His pictures of athletes, such as Swimming (also called The Swimming Hole, 1885; Amon Carter Mus., Fort Worth, Tex.), Salutat (1898; Addison Gall., Andover, Mass.), and Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (1871; Metropolitan Mus.), are especially fine.


See illustrated catalogs of his watercolors by D. F. Hoopes (1971, repr. 1988) and his photographs by G. Hendricks (1972); biographies by L. Goodrich (1933, repr. 1977), W. I. Homer (2002), H. Adams (2005), S. D. Kirkpatrick (2006), and W. S. McFeely (2006); studies by F. Porter (1959), S. Schindler (1967), G. Hendricks (1974), E. Johns (1983, repr. 1991), J. Wilmerding, ed. (1993), H. A. Cooper (1996), K. A. Foster (1998), M. A. Berger (2000), and D. Sewell, ed. (2001); study of his photographs by S. Danly and C. Leibold (1994).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Eakins, Thomas


Born July 25, 1844, in Philadelphia; died there June 25,1916. American painter.

Eakins studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and from 1866 to 1869 he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Eakins is the greatest American realist painter. He introduced into American painting themes from the life of the big city as well as an interest in various occupations, in people involved in art and science, and in sport, as seen in Max Schmitt in a Single Scull and The Thinker (1871 and 1900, respectively; both Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and in The Surgical Clinic of Professor Gross (1875, Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia). Eakins combined strict objectivity and liveliness in depicting nature and the effects of light with profound psychological characterization (the portrait Walt Whitman, 1887, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts).


Porter, F. Thomas Eakins. New York, 1959.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Eakins, Thomas (Cowperthwait)

(1844–1916) painter, photographer, sculptor; born in Philadelphia. After studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1861–66), he studied in Paris (1866–70) under Jean Léon Gerôme. During his travels in Europe he was profoundly influenced by the Spanish painters, Velázquez and Ribera. He returned to Philadelphia (1870), and studied anatomy and dissections at Jefferson Medical College, a pursuit which strongly affected his work. He began teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy (1876) and created a crisis when he insisted on using nude male models in the art classroom. When asked to use loincloths, he refused and resigned in 1886. He worked as a photographer, continuing his study of anatomy in a series of figure-motion studies, and as a sculptor, but he is remembered for his paintings. His work exhibits his mastery of observation and perspective, as well as his stylized but precise realism. Noted for his portraits, scenes of drama, and outdoor activities, such as Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (1871), The Clinic of Dr. Gross (1875), The Writing Master (1881), a portrait of his father, and The Swimming Hole (1884–85), he is honored for his unsentimental approach to humanity and nature. Recent exhibitions and newly discovered information concerning Eakins continue to reveal the life of this enigmatic and important artist.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.