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Thomas Eakins - Scenes from Modern Life HOME
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Back Portrait as Self-Portrait
Photograph of Thomas Eakins Seated at Window of Mount Vernon Street Studio Portrait of Walt Whitman, Thomas Eakins Henry O. Tanner, Thomas Eakins
ST. CHARLES
PORTRAIT AS SELF-PORTRAIT
NEW WAYS OF SEEING
Oscar Wilde noted that every portrait painted with feeling was a self-portrait of the artist. And I think we can look at Eakins' late portraits as a grand survey of his own interest, of his own sense of himself.
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KATHLEEN A. FOSTER, Ph.D.
Curator, Indiana University Art Museum
Eakins' painting late in life reflects his own journey. The awareness that he had of the effect, sometimes devastating effect, of external events on lives. You might say, to put it another way he fell more and more in love with humanity and what is required of human beings as they journey through a life that offers what they do not expect.
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ELIZABETH JOHNS, Ph.D.
Art Historian, University of Pennsylvania
I've often felt and I do feel particularly with these late pictures, that you reach a point where Eakins is not only seeing so powerfully what's going on in the faces in front of him, those who are sitting for him, but you also feel that these are expressions of himself.
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JOHN WILMERDING
Art Historian, Princeton University
I believe Eakins was attracted to Whitman because Whitman too had suffered the kind of rejection Eakins had and had learned to be somewhat philosophical about it. Eakins took a number of photographs of Whitman and then painted his portrait over the next, perhaps as long as a year. He seems to be caught in the act of perhaps speaking, but also of looking back -- having lived a life that was challenging and having lived it with great enthusiasm. In fact, Whitman was somewhat taken aback when he saw the portrait. He said "well, I didn't mean that the man would make me look so Rabelaisian." I think that this was a projection on the part of Eakins into Whitman. Although Whitman was much older then Eakins, Eakins saw himself too at a point in life in which he had done a great deal and things were beginning to settle down.
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ELIZABETH JOHNS, Ph.D.
Art Historian, University of Pennsylvania
I never knew of but one artist, and that's Tom Eakins who could resist the temptation to see what they think they ought to rather than what is.
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WALT WHITMAN
After he painted Whitman, Eakins undertook another painting that was an ambitious one. This was a portrait of Dr. Agnew in his surgical clinic. He had been asked to paint simply just a bust portrait by the graduating class of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. But he saw the opportunity to paint a very imposing one that also would give record of the changes in surgical practices that had taken place in only 14 years since he had painted the Dr. Gross.
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ELIZABETH JOHNS, Ph.D.
Art Historian, University of Pennsylvania
I particularly like to look at the portrait of Leslie Miller as a kind of full-length self-portrait of Eakins, because Leslie Miller was very similar to Eakins in age and occupation. He was an artist who had become a teacher and he's shown here in this painting addressing his students as if about to speak. He looks straight at us and we get the feeling that we're looking right at Eakins. It's a picture that shows you a teacher in an art school in front of his students. It's Eakins as he wished to be seen but sadly now he was retired from teaching.
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KATHLEEN A. FOSTER, Ph.D.
Curator, Indiana University Art Museum
When Eakins really started painting portraits for money, they didn't turn out very well because Eakins when he, unless he had a real sympathy for the person, didn't really paint them with any great attention or sympathy that comes through the canvas. And sometimes in fact I think some of his paintings are so unsympathetic they are almost cruel. There is one portrait of A.W. Lee, which was a portrait that Lee purchased, paid for but didn't ever take from Eakins. That was the trouble with Eakins' commissioned portraits, lots of people didn't like them. They didn't take them. Or they took them and put them away in the closet.
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DARREL SEWELL
Curator, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Eakins' eyes are what are unmistakable from any other portraits of this period. I think that explains why so few of his pictures are frontally faced. He was able to paint himself, the kind of brutality of looking in the mirror, he was able to paint his wife looking directly at him, in other words, those closest to him, there's The Concert Singer, Edith Mahon at Smith college, one of the most moving late portraits of 1904, ah where she's looking directly at you with watery eyes. And it's so moving and powerful that you're almost moved to tears yourself. How difficult it is for all of us, when you meet people at cocktail parties, social occasions, you know to look in somebody's eyes, we want to avert our gaze, we want to look over their shoulder. Eakins, metaphorically, had that power to look straightforward and there were very few sitters he was willing to see with that kind of directness.
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JOHN WILMERDING
Art Historian, Princeton University
The great picture of Amelia Van Buren, in this pink dress in that great Victorian chair, almost trapped bird-like, there's that same type of off-stage kind of glance. And you feel she's been caught up in her thoughts, focusing on something, almost like an escape to get out of this confinement.
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JOHN WILMERDING
Art Historian, Princeton University
It's a very simple picture; it's a tour-de-force as a full-length picture. it's a rumpled black suit, and the amazing thing, I think, is that we feel and completely understand the human torso standing inside it. He gives us a feeling, in both senses of the word, the gravity of Louis Kenton. We feel the weight of the body standing on the floor.
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JOHN WILMERDING
Art Historian, Princeton University
A wonderful example is his very fine portrait of Henry Ossawa Tanner, who had studied with him. A person who is of mixed race, had known a great deal of racial prejudice and much disappointment. Eakins very knowingly painted Tanner in profile with the near side of his face in shadow to suggest the inner life of the man that would forever remain hidden because of all that he had suffered.
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ELIZABETH JOHNS, Ph.D.
Art Historian, University of Pennsylvania
Tanner had gone abroad to paint and had in fact become a very successful painter in Paris, won some of the world's first medals, I believe, and had turned to very successful landscape painting in Paris. So Eakins is now painting an equal.
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JOHN WILMERDING
Art Historian, Princeton University
The poignant thing is that pictures in Eakins' studio late in life showed that the studio space was actually smaller and smaller because stacked against the walls were the portraits of those he had painted of whom he had found worthy, but who found the portraits not worthy of being taken home. It must have been an extremely sad and poignant old age for him.
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ELIZABETH JOHNS, Ph.D.
Art Historian, University of Pennsylvania
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