Myth of Great American Painter Overturned in Eakins Revealed
Henry Adams, Case art historian, writes about Thomas Eakins
Henry Adams, Case Western Reserve University art historian, never anticipated shattering the pristine aura surrounding the great American painter Thomas Eakins, but he does so in his new book, Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist (Oxford University Press, 2005).
What Adams writes of Eakins reverses more than 100 years of scholarship and writings by art historians. In the book, Adams says he "strips away Eakins’ veneer as a paragon of honesty, integrity and morality to expose a psychologically and sexually troubled artist whose life was rife with scandals."
Eakins, who began his artistic career late in the Victorian era, was initially rejected by his contemporaries. He later would rise to fame during the early 20th century, when the public turned against Victorian taste and the excesses of the Gilded Age. By the 1930s, Eakins was often hailed as the greatest American painter of the 19th century—or even the greatest American painter.
As an art historian, Adams said that he was never quite comfortable with the Eakins myth, since he always thought that "something about Eakins’ work did not feel quite honest and was not very nice."
What kept the myth alive for so long was partly Susan Eakins’ distortion of her husband’s life and partly the disappearance of the evidence: Eakins’ former student, Charles Bregler, rescued a trove of documents and artifacts from the Eakins home and kept them hidden from scholars.
Bregler’s collection of Eakins artifacts only resurfaced in 1984. Adams drew from this extensive cache of thousands of Eakins’ personal letters, nude photographs of himself and his students (male and female, whom he forced to disrobe), memorabilia and possessions. He reconstructed a life and career profoundly at odds with the Eakins ideal as advanced by such scholars as Lloyd Goodrich and Elizabeth Johns.
Adams started the project with goals very different from those of the final book. When the Bregler papers surfaced, Adams set out to write a celebratory article for Smithsonian Magazine, focusing on the discovery of "hidden treasure." When he actually read the Bregler papers, however, Adams realized that there was a darker story to tell—one that went directly against traditional Eakins scholarship.
Delving into the materials, Adams began to piece together the painter’s disturbed life and then re-examined Eakins’ body of work for connections to that life. What began as a magazine article became, after 14 years of research and writing, Eakins Revealed.
At times, Adams said, it was painful to write the book. He would periodically shift to other projects, publishing more than 100 articles on various American artists while also teaching classes and curating exhibitions. But Eakins story continued to lure him back.
"Anytime someone looks at an Eakins painting, the evidence of the artist’s
tormented private life is reflected from the canvas," according to Adams.
Eakins’ troubles started early in his life. Adams traces the origins of his exhibitionism and depression to his formative years, when Benjamin Eakins, his authoritarian father, delegated the care of his mentally ill wife to his only son. Eakins’ mother, Adams suggests, impeded her son’s sexual development by blurring the roles of son and husband during her psychotic episodes. Her drastic mood swings deprived Eakins of a normal childhood and instilled lifelong fears of castration. In response, the artist created recurrent, deviant situations that assured him of his male identity.
In the context of this personal history, Eakins’ monumental works — The Gross Clinic, the various versions of the William Rush paintings, The Concert Singer and the later despondent portraits of otherwise vibrant women—take on new meaning. Adams argues, for example, that Eakins’ portrayal of men and women with androgynous characteristics reflected the artist’s confusion over his own sexuality.
Eakins would require his sitters—many from Philadelphia high society—to stand or sit for hours in awkward stances, or to disrobe, to create uncomfortable and embarrassing situations. He invariably portrayed them in an unflattering manner. Many of those portraits—including one of President Rutherford Hayes—were destroyed or hidden by the subjects or their families, said Adams. While Eakins’ actions, particularly towards women, often violated the cultural norms of his time, 19th-century America lacked the rules and regulations that prohibit such sexual harassment today.
Adams confesses that he is not usually a proponent of psychological analysis of artists, but he felt this approach was necessary given the troubling aspects of Eakins’ biography. (One of Eakins’ nieces, who had accused him of sexual misconduct, commited suicide; and one of his art students, whose family believed that Eakins had seduced her, went insane and was permanently institutionalized.) Adams also explains that even though decades of work by Freud and his successors have illuminated deviant behaviors, the general public still lacks an understanding of the impulses that drive men to exhibitionism, voyeurism and incest. By telling Eakins’ story, Adams hopes to shed light on a topic often clouded by misconceptions.
While Goodrich and Johns placed the artist on a pedestal for moral as well as artistic greatness, Adams comes to Eakins’ greatness by other means.
"By making art out of the chaos, conflict, and scandal of his own life, Eakins brought us more deeply into the world of sorrow, suffering,and despair than any other American artist of the 19th century," writes Adams. "By some peculiar alchemy, he made his dark feelings beautiful, as anyone can attest who has contemplated one of his major paintings. Their effect can only be described as hypnotic."
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