Self Portrait, 1902
(July 25, 1844 – June 25, 1916)
Thomas Eakins is an American realist painter well known for his realism and controversial expression. He stretched the limits of nudity in art and had a strong desire to explore the heart of American life. Although he received little recognition during his years, after his death he has acquired the honor of being considered “the strongest, and most profound realist in nineteenth and early twentieth century American art.”
Thomas Eakins was born in Philadelphia on July 25, 1844. He grew up on a farm and by the age of twelve was already demonstrating amazing ability and understanding of perspective and line drawing.
Shown above is a drawing of a Spanish scene done in March 1858, when Eakins was just fourteen. It is clear he already has a firm grasp of lines, value and shading, and some empirical perspective. Eakins is well known for his portraits of prominent people in arts, sciences, medicine, and clergy. He was interested in the aspects of human figure with a focus in anatomy and surgical dissections. His early works of rowing scenes are done in mostly oils and watercolors but through his education and teaching he also became skilled in photography and sculpting. Most of his works were criticized for their nudity however, today we see that his work not only helped change the acceptance of nudity in art, but also highly impacted the world of medicine.
The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic were two works that made Eakins an icon of modern medicine. With his high level of expression, he helped to popularize the new ideas of surgery and turned something that was once considered mundane and repugnant into something more admirable and accepted. The contrast of both works is key to their understanding in that The Agnew Clinic shows the advancements of science and health that changed the world of surgery.
The Gross Clinic, 1875 The Agnew Clinic, 1889
As you compare the two it is clear that The Gross Clinic depicts early surgery in a dark, not very clean surgical theater. The dark colors and shadows make the gore of the surgery a prominent part of the image however, keeping in mind the times, this amount of gore is minimal to that of the more commonly used amputations. This work depicts the advancement of surgery from regular amputations. In comparison, the colors of The Agnew Clinic are much brighter and less depressing. The surgery theater is shown to be cleaner and more hygienic. There is much less gore and there is a highly prominent female nurse in the picture. This image is a complete transformation of surgery.
I chose this artist because I was particularly interested in the way he broke boundaries in art and became such a large influence in medicine. Through his art he was able to communicate the advancements in health to the mass public and therefore played a huge part in the transformation of surgery. He also worked with nudity and the growing prominence of women in his works regardless of the large criticism that came his way. Overall, one can see why Thomas Eakins is considered such an important artist in American history.
Finally, because he is a painter, I have included some of his study drawings below in which you can see line, shading, negative space, and perspective techniques that we have worked with in class.