Eakins and Rowland

April 08, 1994|By BENNARD B. PERLMAN

Although Thomas Eakins is considered America's foremost painter of pensive portraits, he is represented in but a single public collection in Europe, and has long been a nonentity there. That changed recently when London's National Portrait Gallery mounted its first-ever exhibition of this U.S. master, borrowing the works from museums and galleries abroad.

Eakins' dour depictions of four dozen individuals, ranging from professors to performers, female models to family members, met a welcome reception, a combination, perhaps, of the sullen British temperament and the grayness of winter.

Many of his best-known masterpieces have been included, such as ''William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River,'' ''The Pathetic Song,'' and a likeness of Walt Whitman, who once asserted: ''All that Eakins does has the mark of genius.''

Less familiar but certainly of prime interest to Baltimoreans is a portrait titled ''Professor Henry A. Rowland,'' of the world-renowned physicist who was a member of Johns Hopkins University's founding faculty in 1876, the same year Eakins began teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

Eakins was a scientific realist, a believer in fact rather than fancy when it came to painting as well as instructing his classes. At a time when the teaching of anatomy was usually limited to requiring slavish copies of bones and bodies, Eakins dared to share with his students the intimate details of the human form. He took photographs for their use, and his, of both male and female pupils posed nude, sometimes including his own naked body among them.

Whispered stories plagued him during his tenure at the academy. Finally, in 1886, in an act of defiance, he removed the loin cloth from a male model, a forbidden act that resulted in his resignation from the school.

Another scandal, this one involving his two nieces, prompted Eakins to seek a temporary sanctuary. He rented a room in Seal Harbor, Maine, where Henry Rowland maintained a summer home, and began the painting of him. The project was not a portrait commission, having been initiated by the artist.

Eakins found that he and Rowland had several interests in common, among them a love of photography and sailing. Rowland took him out on his boat on numerous occasions, and the artist reciprocated by teaching the physicist how to ride a bike. At one point Eakins was asked to repaint Rowland's head because ''he don't want to look sunburnt for he says he is never that in Baltimore.''

On one occasion the two of them sailed to nearby North East Harbor, Maine, where Hopkins' president, Daniel Coit Gilman, was summering; on another, Eakins reported that ''Winslow Homer is down near Portland. . . . I would be glad to meet him and he might like to meet me but I should not like to go hunt him up.''

Eakins portrait of Rowland shows him seated in front of a ruling machine, his revolutionary invention that was capable of scoring 48,000 lines to the inch on a concave mirror, thereby producing a spectrum image without the aid of lenses. The device represented an advanced method of calibration of such significance that the study of spectroscopy as an exact science is said to have dated from its creation.

Standing in the background of the painting is Rowland's assistant, Theodore Schneider, depicted at work on a lathe in the lab at Hopkins.

Eakins shared his sensitivity to pictorial design and chiaroscuro with Rowland, informing him at one point that ''I have changed somewhat my idea of the composition of your picture. I am going to give the engine a little more prominence. . . . Putting it on a lower table or bench will keep it away from his head and I shall let in on it some of the direct light, instead of lighting it only by that reflected from walls.''

As the work neared completion, Eakins noted that ''The most prominent thing in the picture will be the head, whereas before it was the whole figure. Schneider will . . . continue the bright spots of the machine [in the background].''

Eakins' obsession for accuracy of mechanical details caused him to write Rowland on August 28, 1897, following his return to Philadelphia, that ''I was in Baltimore last week and made a perspective drawing of your [ruling] engine, and got an understanding of it. The directness and simplicity of that engine has affected me and I shall be a better mechanic and a better artist.''

Still at work on the canvas on November 17, the artist wrote that before the background could be completed ''I must see you. I shall therefore send the picture to you at the Johns Hopkins and come down some day soon.''

One of the most unusual aspects of the painting is its chestnut frame, which contains a myriad of markings, carved by the artist and covering the entire area of its broad, flat surface.

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