Thursday, August 9, 2007

Back to the Future

Amy Werbel’s Thomas Eakins: Art, Medicine, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia does what I never thought any critic could do—it brings Thomas Eakins back to life. Not physically, obviously, but by traveling back in time and seeing Eakins through the eyes of Victorian Philadelphia, the era in which he lived and worked. After decades of critical deconstruction, Werbel reconstructs Eakins life, work, and reputation not to apologize for his actions but to contextualize and rehumanize them. Eakins “was smart enough to intuit many of the cultural land mines in his hometown of Philadelphia,” Werbel writes, “but then subversive enough to find ways to step on each one.” Werbel guides us through the minefield of Eakins time and defuses much of the explosiveness of Eakins’ scandals for today, bringing the Eakins of the past back to his future today.

Werbel begins by setting the stage for Eakins in situ by paralleling his career with that of Charles Willson Peale, born in Philadelphia almost exactly one century before Eakins. She shows how in the Revolutionary Era Philadelphia of Peale's day figures such as Benjamin Franklin could be seen as colorful rakes, but in the eyes of the Victorians would stand out as corruptive lechers. “Eakins, despite all his nonconformity,” Werbel writes, “fit squarely into a tradition of artisan—artist—scientists who negotiated issues of class, gender, and sexuality while making their unique contributions to the cultural history of Philadelphia.” The turning point for American cultural history that transforms these perceptions is the moral reform movement of the 1840s and their concept of “moral hygiene.” Eakins’ emphasis on the nude wasn’t new, but the rhetoric had not only “shifted,” in Werbel’s view, it had “hardened.”

Eakins runs full speed into this wall of hardened opposition to his particular view of the nude human body. In works such as The Agnew Clinic (top of this post), The Gross Clinic, The Crucifixion, and Swimming (above) , Eakins shows how his extensive medical training in dissection had altered his perception of the human body to that of a clinician. Speaking this clinical “language” in his works, Eakins found himself unable to converse with the viewing public. “Eakins view of the human body was far more acute than his gaze at the body politic,” Werbel concludes. Eakins, his vision and vocabulary altered by his commitment to the scientific approach to the human body, found himself an alien outside of medical circles. Werbel shows how this mistranslation continued in the decades after Eakins’ death, as modern deconstructive critical approaches took paintings such as Swimming and interpreted the same-sex relations as homoerotic rather than as a commonplace in Eakins’ time. Similarly, modernist feminist critics see The Agnew Clinic, in which a woman’s breast is surgically removed in a room full of men, as indicative of the destructive male gaze and violence against women. Werbel reminds us of the other woman in the room, the nurse standing opposite Dr. Agnew. Mary V. Clymer, the nurse depicted, “was among the first, if not the very first, nurse to perform specialized duties in the surgical ampitheater,” Werbel reveals. By showing “a working woman in the very public (and very masculine) realm of surgery,” Werbel asserts, Eakins strikes a blow for women’s rights and not against women’s dignity. This brand of New Historicism Werbel wields clears away the cobwebs of critical agendas and breathes new life into Eakins’ works.

“To have an anatomist’s view of the body was not a diminished vision,” Werbel contends in defense of Eakins, “it was an expanded one.” Werbel continually demonstrates not only the expansiveness of Eakins’ vision but also its courageousness in the face of the fearful, self-narrowing Victorian culture around him. Despite the very real danger of imprisonment under the Comstock laws of the 1870s, Eakins continued to photograph himself and his students nude (one example above). In fact, Eakins’ nude photos “comprehensively survey, and challenge, the conventions of nudity and voyeurism in the nineteenth century.” But the Victorian age wasn’t up to Eakins’ challenge. Whereas freak show images posing as “medical curiosities” and the near-duplicate photographic studies of Eadweard Muybridge circulated freely, Eakins’ photographic studies cost him his position at the PAFA and remained locked in a safe until 1978. Eakins’ own lack of diplomacy lies behind much of this discrepancy. The machinations of Muybridge and others allowed them to navigate through the minefield of public morals. For Eakins, it was damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

Eakins’ undiplomatic ways entangled him in scandals both public and private, which Werbel parallels with the public scandal of Dr. William Smith Forbes (Eakins’ portrait above) and the private life scandal of Oscar Wilde. Forbes stood accused of grave robbing in the name of procuring cadavers for dissection at Thomas Jefferson University. Werbel traces how Forbes not only gained an acquittal but became “sanctified as well” as a hero of scientific progress. Perhaps heartened by Forbes’ case, Eakins may have entertained similar hopes of glory when he pushed for co-ed nude study at the PAFA. Lacking “the privileged status of doctors,” however, Eakins learned that he had overstepped his bounds. When Eakins’ niece Ella Crowell committed suicide and accusations of abuse were leveled at him in 1897, the just-concluded case of Oscar Wilde was still fresh. “When the editors of Philadelphia’s newspapers condemned Wilde for aestheticism and indecency, they were also condemning the era’s sexual revolutionaries,” Werbel proves with excerpts from those heated screeds. Eakins, too, became caught up in this era of “’moral panic’ in which unseen private crimes increasingly caused anxiety.” Eakins never taught again after 1897 thanks to the age's sexual anxiety and mania for seeking out monsters, conveniently finding one in the artist.

In perhaps the most beautiful chapter of the book, Werbel concludes with an examination of how Eakins’ “family values” shaped his work and life. She sees Eakins’ unconventional Quaker background as providing him not only with the inquisitive, questioning mind that joined art and science but also with the backbone to face uncompromisingly all opposition. Werbel believes that Eakins “grew up so steeped in Quaker culture that a lack of documentary evidence seems beside the point.” The “documentary evidence,” Werbel suggests, lies in the portraits themselves, which she sees as imbued with the Quaker concept of “Inner Light.” Eakins’ often confounding practice of portraying his subjects in shabby, everyday clothes (including himself, above) makes greater sense in this context of the Quaker disdain for ostentation and elevation of the simple, plain dignity of work and the worker. Finally, Werbel portrays Eakins’ wife, Susan Macdowell Eakins, in perhaps the most positive light I have ever read. The wan, silently suffering wife of other studies becomes a vibrant, like-minded mate in Werbel’s reinterpretation. “Susan without a doubt always believed that [Eakins’] art was worth her sacrifice,” Werbel concludes. Susan and Eakins’ father Benjamin formed the foundation of the support system that allowed him to weather the storms and continue working, often at great cost not only to himself but to those around him.

By reconstructing Eakins in his time, Werbel removes the deconstructive and destructive patina that decades of analysis have hardened around Eakins and his work. She takes us back to the past and then back to the future, showing the necessity of placing any work of the past in context if we are truly to understand it today. By reforming the cultural environment around Eakins, Werbel reforms his tarnished reputation and allows his “Inner Light” to shine once again.

[Many thanks to Yale University Press for providing me with a review copy of this book.]

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