Friday, July 25, 2008

Misunderstanding, Persecution, and Neglect

In 1894, after losing his teaching job at the PAFA amidst a sexually charged scandal that would plague him the rest of his life, Thomas Eakins wrote: "My honors are misunderstanding, persecution & neglect, enhanced because unsought." Born July 25, 1844 under an unlucky star, Eakins may be the greatest artist America has ever produced, certainly the greatest Philadelphia ever birthed, and yet also the most unjustly neglected. Growing up in Philadelphia and fascinated with Eakins’ work since I was a teenager, I can’t help but see Eakins around every corner. Annie once asked me what great painting I’d like to own. When I told her Eakins’ The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) (above, from 1871), she did the next best thing—she made it the wallpaper for my laptop. Now, Eakins portrait of his friend Max Schmitt stares out at me each time I turn it on, but my eyes often turn to Eakins portrait of himself rowing away into the distance. Each time we drive along the Schuylkill River and see Boathouse Row, I think of Eakins and this painting, however briefly. Each time we cross the Girard Avenue Bridge, shown in the distance of The Champion Single Sculls, to make a U-turn after visiting the Philadelphia Zoo, I think of Eakins and this painting, however briefly. (While visiting the zoo with Annie and Alex, I sometimes think of how Eakins’ pet monkey Bobby ended up there after Eakins’ death and wonder if any of Bobby’s ancestors still swing in those habitats.) But all those brief moments of reflection add up to a huge ghost that haunts the city like Hamlet’s father, asking to be revenged.

Sidney Kirkpatrick actually titled his great biography The Revenge of Thomas Eakins, in response to the hatchet job by Henry Adams titled Eakins Revealed. I’ve read both, as well as every other major book on Eakins. The sum of such reading infects me with the ability to merge the city and the artist almost entirely. A Phillies game harks back to Eakins watercolor of baseball players practicing in 1875-style uniforms. Walking past Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and their statue of Dr. Samuel D. Gross calls to mind The Gross Clinic and how that work was almost taken from Philadelphia. For someone who has been dead for almost a century, Eakins still gets around, at least vicariously through my thoughts. When the PMA exhibited Eakins’ The Swimming Hole (above, from 1884), I made sure to take a good long look before it went back to it’s home museum in Texas, part of the great Eakins exodus in the years after his death. Eakins almost sheepishly raises his head above the water in the lower right corner of the painting, looking on at the young men cavorting in the water. Many read sinister narratives into Eakins’ watery self-portrait here, usually centered around homoerotic voyeurism, but I prefer to see Eakins as an unapologetic student of the human form literally worshiping at the feet of God’s greatest achievement.

When the National Academy of Design in New York invited Eakins to join their organization, they asked him to submit a self-portrait. Eakins’ Self-Portrait (above, from 1902) shows the artist gone from riches to rags. His jacket is clearly worn in spots. He’s painted himself poorly shaved. His eyes seem sad rather than proudly brilliant. In this self-portrait, Eakins showed to the world the effects of the years of “misunderstanding, persecution, and neglect.” In many ways, Eakins’ plight mirrors that of Philadelphia itself. Home to the Centennial celebration of 1876, Philadelphia stood as one of the most prosperous manufacturing cities in the world. As the decades passed, those factories gradually closed, jobs disappeared, neighborhoods went bad, and a general sense of malaise and inferiority took firm root in the soul of the city and its people. Everything from the trivial (losing sports teams) to the deadly serious (astronomical murder rates) contributes to the second-class city mentality that Philadelphia imposes upon itself as it slinks into the shadow of New York City. I feel the same fury for my city’s fall as I do for Eakins’ eclipse, believing that the answer to one may actually rest in part in the answer to the other. I’ve been toying around with the idea of writing a short book with a title something like “Thomas Eakins’ Philadelphia.” Aside from finding the time and energy to write a formal proposal for a publisher, I wonder if I’ll ever find the time and energy to write such a book while working a full-time job and being a full-time husband and father. Part of me, however, would love to do it for no other reason than to show my son and future generations of Philadelphians that their city has a great and powerful past all around them that makes them second to nobody. The ghosts are already speaking to them, calling them to better things, if they will simply stop and listen.


Sally Big Woods said...

"Friend speaks my mind."

I think you should write the book, even if it takes a lifetime given your other commitments. The story is there, needs to be told, and we will wait.

Keep up the great work, Bob.

Anonymous said...

I also think you should write a book. You seem to have such passion and knowledge about this great artist work - it would be a pity not to