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Eakins Comes Out

An 1885 painting set in Bryn Mawr gave Philadelphia something to whisper about.

By Mark E. Dixon
Eakins Comes Out

Overall, artist Thomas Eakins outed himself more elegantly than did U.S. Sen. Larry Craig. Rather than using a "wide stance," Eakins revealed himself with an 1885 painting of six naked men—standing, sitting, diving—on a stone pier jutting into Bryn Mawr’s Dove Lake. And lest his viewers miss the point, Eakins himself appears in Swimming. Neck deep in the lake, the artist is heading toward the pier with his eyes fixed on his subjects.

Today, some gay critics point to Swimming as evidence that Eakins was one of them. Eakins’ contemporaries weren’t blind to this, but 19th-century standards made it difficult to comment. Instead, critics ignored what has since been called America’s "most accomplished rendition of the nude figure." Rejected by the patron who commissioned it, Swimming was shoved into a closet until 1925, when Eakins’ widow sold it to a Fort Worth, Texas, museum.

Born in Philadelphia, Eakins was the eldest child of a respected instructor of penmanship at Friends’ Central School. Benjamin Eakins was never rich. But with thrift and savvy investments, he built an estate that allowed his son to study in Paris and, later, defy artistic conventions.

The family seems to have been made up of free thinkers. Eakins’ mother, Caroline, was raised a Quaker, and Benjamin a Presbyterian. But there is no evidence that Thomas Eakins’ parents attended religious services after their marriage. Still, they "clearly incorporated Quaker values in their household," wrote biographer Sidney D. Kirkpatrick (author of The Revenge of Thomas Eakins), who listed among the family’s virtues "self discipline [and] a hatred of hypocrisy and pretension and a stubborn adherence to truth and honesty in the face of opposition."

After graduating from Central High in 1861, Eakins studied drawing and anatomy at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Later he attended courses in anatomy and dissection at Jefferson Medical College and considered becoming a surgeon. From 1866 to 1870, Eakins studied at Paris’ École des Beaux-Arts under the internationally known Jean-Leon Gerome. Gerome became Eakins’ mentor as he fostered an appreciation for realism and the nude. "No pupil left without learning to perfectly draw the human form," wrote Kirkpatrick.

Gerome also may have contributed to the bluntness that characterized Eakins. It was the Frenchman’s habit, wrote Kirkpatrick, to "look carefully and a long time at the model and then at the [student’s] drawing, and then he will point out every fault." The point of sketching, said Gerome, was to master principles. He derided as "ladies’ work" the time wasted on finishing drawings.

In Paris, Eakins developed impatience with Victorian attitudes—the horror of nudity, for instance—that interfered with learning. This would eventually get him into trouble. Writing to Benjamin Eakins in 1868, the artist stated his view:

"[The female nude] is the most beautiful thing there is in the world except a naked man, but I never yet saw a study of one exhibited. It would be a godsend to see a fine man model painted in the studio with the bare walls, alongside of the smiling, smirking goddesses of waxy complexion."

Eakins returned to Philadelphia in 1870, intending to make a living as a portraitist. His timing was good. Philadelphia was booming with new wealth. In every direction, successful businessmen were erecting mansions whose walls needed covering. On the downside, their tastes were often provincial.

"Painters were expected to embroider tedious reality by producing grandiose landscapes and flattering portraits in massive gilt frames," wrote Fitzpatrick. "The only rule was that paintings be pictorially pleasing, expressive of the pervading spirit of prosperity and optimism."

Eakins started by painting family and friends. It was good practice, but brought no money. His first break came when a Union League exhibition accepted Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, a portrait of a champion rower who also happened to be a personal friend. Eakins chose the subject deliberately to show a prominent Philadelphian in a recognizable local setting—on the Schuylkill—and thereby court the attention of potential clients. Schmitt didn’t row in the nude, but his light sleeveless shirt revealed enough musculature to allow Eakins to demonstrate his skills.

Eakins won no awards, and reviews were mixed. The Philadelphia Inquirer called the painting "scarcely satisfactory." The Bulletin used the word "peculiar" but predicted Eakins’ "conspicuous future." That was enough; Eakins had been noticed. He gave the painting to Schmitt and moved on. 

During his 40-year career, Thomas Eakins painted several hundred portraits—many of friends and family, but also of prominent Philadelphians. Most had a distinctly Eakins edge. His 1875 Gross Clinic, which depicted prominent surgeon Samuel D. Gross in mid-operation, was controversial both for the patient’s naked hindquarters and the redness of the bloody scalpel. The artist’s talent was undeniable but, in an era in which Americans thought undraped table legs shocking, his blunt realism troubled many.

Even so, the Pennsylvania Academy took a chance on Eakins’ cutting-edge ideas. Inspired, perhaps, by its new—and also cutting-edge—Frank Furness building on North Broad Street, the academy added "life-drawing" (i.e. nude) classes to the curriculum. Eakins joined for additional practice and eventually took over. In 1879, he was named a professor and, in 1882, director of instruction.

Eakins’ tenure probably caused many ulcers. He passionately believed artists learned best by drawing nude models. This presumed that the academy’s real purpose was to train artists, not be a finishing school for the children of high society. And who should model? In theory, students could model for each other; in practice, models were often paid—and some were prostitutes.

That male students should draw nude women was tolerable. That women should see a nude male was scandalous. Yet Eakins insisted on treating male and female students as equals. By the early 1880s, the academy’s program was "the most liberal and advanced in the world."

But opportunities to depict nude subjects were few. It could be done in historical scenes. Gerome lived by painting Roman gladiators and slave girls. Eakins tried similar tricks. In 1877, he unveiled William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River, which depicted an earlier Philadelphia artist using a nude female model. But Eakins’ desire was to paint the people and places of his time.

Eakins’ realism had other manifestations. One was an interest in sports, which produced his rowing and boxing pictures. Another was anatomy; Eakins’ students dissected human and animal cadavers. Yet another was outdoor sketching. So it was nothing unusual when, in 1884 and ’85, Eakins and several students and assistants traveled to Dove Lake.

Located three miles northwest of the resort at Bryn Mawr, Dove Lake was named for the pre-Revolutionary Dove Mill, which had made paper for the Continental Congress. The lake became a popular recreational site in the 1870s, when the owner dammed the creek. To many Philadelphians, Dove Lake was as recognizable as today’s Jersey shore.

The Eakins party probably walked from Bryn Mawr station to the lake. Opportunities to run, wrestle, lounge, swim and dive in the nude were rare, so Eakins took photographs for reference. "Eakins was ‘boss’ to the students and ostensibly their supervisor, yet he also participated in some, if not all, of their activities," wrote Kirkpatrick. "He appears nude in three of the photographs."

Eakins’ patron was academy trustee Edward Coates, who had offered the artist $800 for a painting whose subject Eakins was free to choose. Coates’ only guidance was an expressed desire that the painting might eventually become part of the academy’s collection. The offer may have been an unofficial way to boost Eakins’ annual salary of $1,200.

What Coates didn’t expect was his foremost teacher skinny-dipping with his students. A conservative financier, he viewed his work with the academy as a form of philanthropy, but doesn’t seem to have been a serious art collector. Nudity was tolerable if the figures were anonymous or lived in the distant past. But each of the six men in Swimming was an identifiable member of the academy community.

Plus, it was politically inconvenient. Complaints about Eakins’ methods had never stopped. "Its purchase by Coates would have been read as his personal endorsement of Eakins’ then-disputed academic program," wrote art historian Doreen Bolger.

Coates declined Swimming and took another painting instead.

A year later, Eakins’ uneasy relationship with the academy came to a noisy conclusion when he removed a loincloth from a male model in front of female students. He might have survived that. But after a private meeting with five of Eakins’ students—including Thomas Anschutz, who had taken some of the Swimming photos—Coates requested the artist’s resignation.

What did they say? "Powerful circumstantial evidence points to the five’s making an accusation that Eakins was an active homosexual," wrote McFeely.

Such stories had circulated before Swimming gave them a tangible form. But now, faced with an actual accusation, the board was forced to act. "Publicly, officially, they could not countenance unmanly behavior by an instructor in the academy studios," McFeely added.

Was Eakins gay? There is no sure evidence either way. Thomas and Susan MacDowell Eakins’ marriage lasted 32 years until his death. But that’s not proof. The couple had no children. But that’s not proof either.

Whether the issue was nudity or homosexuality, what chafed most was that Eakins—unlike Craig—wouldn’t deny or apologize for what he was. So, in the end, both amounted to the same thing.

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at dixon_mark@verizon.net.