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Back Nudity in the Classroom
Photograph of Female nude standing on cloth, with sword Naked Series: Thomas Eakins in front of cloth backdrop Photograph of Thomas Eakins nude and female nude, in University of Pennsylvania photography shed
The appearance of women in the classes created new difficulties for Eakins and made his job... more difficult then it had been for Gerome in Paris where the school had only men. The presence of women in the classes created an atmosphere of decorum, a kind of Victorian need to protect these women somehow. Parents were very concerned with the women seeing too much nudity. And Eakins of course insisted that every student see the nude body. So there was a conflict here created by the presence of women in the classes. And it was probably a woman student who complained to her parents about Eakins removing the loincloth from a nude male in one of his anatomy lectures that led to his dismissal in February 1886. This complaint was in fact justified, that is, Eakins was in trouble here -- he had been forbidden from using total nudity in these lectures exactly because of fear of offending the sensibility of the women students... but Eakins of course defended himself by saying the students must understand how the parts connect and that the prudery of the fig leaf was unnecessary for an art student. So there was a fundamental conflict here between the values of Eakins learned in Paris with the Victorian values of the parents and genteel women students in his classes. I think even parents today would be upset to think that their 20-year-old daughter was posing nude for the 40-year-old professor. It was a very difficult situation for the board of directors. KATHLEEN A. FOSTER, Ph.D.
Curator, Indiana University Art Museum
I think any art administrator today would have to fire Eakins today. His conduct at the time would be described today as sexual harassment. If a student came to him and discussed a level of discomfort of drawing or painting for example male or female nude model, Eakins would have been dismissive. He didn't have a knack for explaining his position well. He simply assumed that anyone who took art seriously understood the study of the nude was the basis of art education. Other students he felt didn't belong at the Pennsylvania Academy. That wasn't good for the ledger books. The Board of Trustees had a financial responsibility to keep the Academy afloat. Eakins didn't help. AMY B. WERBEL, Ph.D.
Art Historian, St. Michael's College
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