Whenever I start up my trusty laptop, I’m greeted with the image of Thomas Eakins’ The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) (above, from 1871). Annie once asked me what famous painting I’d like to own and I told her that I wouldn’t mind seeing Mr. Schmitt gracing our home. The next time I fired up my computer, I discovered that Annie had set up Eakins’ painting as my background. It’s a great eye opener early in the mornings to remind me of the beauty in the world, the greatness of art, my hometown of Philadelphia, and, most importantly, the beautiful woman with whom I’ve linked my life. I’ve read pretty much everything of significance written about the greatest artist Philadelphia’s ever produced. In fact, the evolution of my view of Eakins can serve as a microcosm of my overall relationship with art history. The Lloyd Goodrich myth of Eakins as the great American artist who put principles over profitability has now given way to a more realistic and more human view of the artist as a principled artist and man who still had to support his family and play by some of the rules of the game. The ruthless realism Goodrich proposed in works such as The Champion Single Sculls now gives way to the idea in Alan C. Braddock’s Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity (reviewed here) that Eakins had an agenda in his art to present his home grounds in the best possible light.
As much as I hate Henry Adams’ Eakins Revealed for the Freudian hate frenzy that it is, Adams does begin, however loosely, from many of the character flaws of Eakins before amplifying them into pathologies. Goodrich sainted Eakins to fulfill his own mission of elevating American artists the same way that he saw French art historians writing fawning hagiographies of their own national artists. To present the weaknesses of Eakins as a person or even as an artist could reflect back badly on American art and defeat the whole purpose of Goodrich’s quest to create an American art history to challenge the art histories of centuries-older European countries. When I look at the photo of Eakins at about 40 years of age (above), I see a man who realizes fully who he is and just how far his temperament and talents will take him. Finding myself reaching that same place chronologically in life, I’m heartened by the intensity and conviction in Eakins’ eye. It’s not easy to look into a mirror and accept what you see. There was a lot that Eakins could have recognized and rejected, but to do so would be to cast away many of the same impulses that made him the artist and teacher he was. The look in Eakins’ eye is an eye opener for anyone standing astride that magic number of 40.
I still find it hard to believe how close Philadelphia was to having Eakins’ masterpiece, The Gross Clinic (above, from 1875), sold away. That near sale, however, may turn out to be a blessing in disguise if it opened the eyes of the community to what may be the single greatest painting in American art history sitting right under its collective nose. Every year, the University of Pennsylvania selects a book for its reading project as a way to “unite” the university in musing on one work. This year, Penn has chosen The Gross Clinic as its topic, the first time they’ve ever chosen a painting. The project website (note some access limited to students only) guides students not only in understanding the history and meaning of the work but also such nitty gritty details as the work’s strange conservation history. I envy those young students for the communal art history experience they’re about to have. Penn should be commended for looking in its own backyard for a topic that ties together so many great things about Philadelphia. Penn and the City of Philadelphia have had a contentious relationship for many years and The Gross Clinic might finally provide the connections to heal the disconnect that has festered for so long. Cynics might argue that today’s students won’t bring Eakins into their hearts, but I’ll bet on the artist that opened my eyes any day.