Thomas Eakins is widely considered one of the great American painters, an artist whose uncompromising realism helped move American art from the Victorian era into the modern age. He is also acclaimed as a paragon of integrity, one who stood up for his artistic beliefs even when they brought him personal and professional difficulty--as when he was fired from the Pennsylvania Academy of Art for removing a model's loincloth in a drawing class.
Yet beneath the surface of Eakins's pictures is a sense of brooding unease and latent violence--a discomfort voiced by one of his sitters who said his portrait "decapitated" her. In Eakins Revealed, art historian Henry Adams examines the dark side of Eakins's life and work, in a startling new biography that will change our understanding of this American icon. Based on close study of Eakins's work and new research in the Bregler papers, a major collection never fully mined by scholars, this volume shows Eakins was not merely uncompromising, but harsh and brutal both in his personal life and in his painting. Adams uncovers the bitter personal feuds and family tragedies surrounding Eakins--his mother died insane and his niece committed suicide amid allegations that Eakins had seduced her--and documents the artist's tendency toward psychological abuse and sexual harassment of those around him.
This provocative book not only unveils new facts about Eakins's life; more important, it makes sense, for the first time, of the enigmas of his work. Eakins Revealed promises to be a controversial biography that will attract readers inside and outside the art world, and fascinate anyone concerned with the mystery of artistic genius.
Don't let the lurid title and subtitle fool you: this is an academic study, full of pedantic asides, boring psychologizing (in which figures in many paintings are mapped onto figures from Eakins's family) and interminable stretches of interpretation of often too-small reproductions (330 b&w in all). But Eakins (1844 1916) is undoubtedly a painter of major interest, and Adams, a formidable art historian who collaborated with Ken Burns on a Thomas Hart Benton documentary for PBS, does have a fresh take that he works out with rigor and care. He links evidence for sexual trauma in Eakins's childhood to evidence of subsequent episodes of violence and sexual misconduct in a manner that is neither prurient nor moralizing. And he displays great affinity for, and astute observations of, the work itself, which includes some of the most striking American paintings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An entire chapter dedicated to Eakins's ultrarealist operating room depiction The Gross Clinic (1875) proves illuminating all the way through. A reconsideration of the photographs that Eakins both exhibited and worked from contemplates a variety of kinds of nudity, including the "homosocial or homosexual" qualities of some of them. After a chapter on "Inflicting Pain," the book ends with a wrap on Eakins's life and reputation as constructed in the literature, which lingers, in its final pages, on the painter's "pleasure in nakedness." Author tour.FYI:Also coming out in March is A Drawing Manual by Thomas Eakins, published by Yale University Press in association with the Philadelphia Museum of Art ( 100p ); the volume of lectures and drawings approximates one Eakins intended to publish before his forced resignation from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.