A popular life of a controversial painter

Review Art

December 10, 2006|By Nancy Forgione | Nancy Forgione,Special to the Sun

Portrait: A Life of Thomas Eakins

William S. McFeely

W.W. Norton / 237 pages / $26.95

The 19th-century realist painter Thomas Eakins was a complex and conflicted man and a brilliant and controversial artist. Under-appreciated in his own lifetime but now regarded as the finest American portraitist of his era, Eakins has been much studied in recent decades. The discovery, in the1980s, of the Bregler documents, a treasure trove of items that belonged to the artist - including hundreds of nude photographs taken by Eakins and his students - generated even more interest. Just recently his name has again made the headlines, because his 1875 masterpiece, The Gross Clinic, is up for sale.

The latest contribution is William S. McFeely's new biography, Portrait: A Life of Thomas Eakins, intended for a popular rather than an academic audience. McFeely aims to present a balanced account of Eakins' life and career, and he takes a sympathetic approach both to the painter and to his wife, Susan Macdowell Eakins, who remained loyal to him in difficult circumstances.

Eakins lived his entire life in Philadelphia, except for a sojourn to study art in Paris in the 1860s. A dedicated and popular art teacher, he became the director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, but was forced to resign following an 1886 incident in which, during an anatomy lecture, with female students in attendance, he impulsively removed the loincloth from a male model. Certain outraged witnesses, some of whom already had their doubts about Eakins, complained.

Anatomical correctness mattered deeply to Eakins. His art centered on the human face and figure, portrayed with scrupulous realism. His scientific study of not just anatomy, but also light, mathematics and perspective, underlay the precise beauty of his pictures. His artistic practice involved skill and discipline of both mind and body; so did the activities he chose to depict - men rowing on the Schuylkill River, renowned surgeons performing operations, trained vocalists singing arias.

But Eakins had a dark side to his psyche that contributed to his unorthodox behavior. His mother's mental illness made family life uneasy. McFeely notes that Eakins suffered from depression and possibly bipolar disorder. Certainly he had homosexual tendencies, though to what extent he repressed or pursued them is unclear. His life was plagued with scandal, much of it of a sexual nature.

The hundreds of nude photos taken by Eakins and his students include a few racy ones, but most record the human body in motion and clearly served as anatomical studies for paintings. The sheer quantity of the photos - or rather the nudity - raises eyebrows, however, in concert with other questionable incidents that cast suspicion on Eakins' behavior. Among various charges of impropriety, the worst came from his brother-in-law, who accused the painter of incest with his youngest sister, Margaret, who had died of typhoid a few years earlier. Some years later, Eakins' niece, known to be mentally unstable, lived at the painter's house for a time and took art lessons from him. When she later committed suicide, some blamed Eakins for his disturbing influence on her. Throughout these turmoils, Eakins' wife, Susan, steadfastly supported him.

McFeely does not shy away from raising the thorny issues and scandals that marked the painter's life and career. He considers the possible explanations. Was Eakins an impulsive personality whose disregard for convention resulted in too many indiscretions, or was he what today we would term a sex offender? However, McFeely tends to close each issue with a clich? rather than an insight. For example, regarding Eakins' connection to the niece's suicide, he concludes, "Where there is this much smoke, you suspect fire." It is, of course, impossible to know the whole truth.

As a biographer, McFeely devotes more attention to Eakins' life than to his art. He focuses mainly on one painting, Swimming, of 1884-85. It portrays a group of young men, including Eakins himself, skinny-dipping at a swimming hole. McFeely sees the artist's celebration of the nude male body here not as evidence of homoerotic interest but as expressing a particularly American kind of freedom, of the sort found in the works of Whitman and Thoreau.

Readers looking for an accessible, mild-mannered biography will find here an adequate overview of Eakins' life and career. Those seeking a more incisive exploration of Eakins' personality and his art can look elsewhere: There are plenty of other choices. One fault with this book is the disappointing quality of the writing. The fact that McFeely's 1981 Grant: A Biography won the Pulitzer Prize raises high expectations, but the prose here is often inelegant, and awkward syntax sometimes skews the import of his sentences - problems that could easily have been remedied by rewriting and editing.

McFeely has thoroughly researched his subject and covers the important events in a straightforward chronological fashion. His accomplishment, in Portrait: A Life of Thomas Eakins, is to distill the essentials of a complex story into a compact, easy-to-read volume designed not for the specialist but for the general reader.

Nancy Forgione, who was a visiting assistant professor of art history at the Johns Hopkins University, completed this review before her death last week.

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