Thomas Eakins, Artistic Honesty,

Whitney Museum of American Art (1970's)



 Entering the Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) exhibition at the Whitney Museum -- after being exposed to the art usual to Madison Avenue (essentially trash) -- one finds oneself grasping for superlatives.  Perhaps most striking is the direct, unpretentious honesty of the paintings.  Why have contemporary artists so assiduously avoided this character trait as if it were dispensable in the creation of genuine art?  It isn't.


 The solemn majesty of the human soul is revealed in these paintings...strong words for our time when mankind is generally reviled, and cynical opportunism is the watchword of the day.  But, then, Eakins is a breed different from most of us today...certainly our artists.


 Like a visitor from a distant galaxy and some far-gone, forgotten time, Eakins, amazingly enough, is an artist actually interested in people and reality as subjects for his art.  He believes there is drama and meaning in the way a nose -- any nose -- arches away from the cheekbones, that a hand holding a scalpel can be a magical visual and emotional event.  That the construction and discovery of the form and substance of the human face can present human character -- the soul, if you wish -- with such strength that it literally forces its way out from within the sitter, through the eyes and the set of the mouth.


 "Lady with a Setter Dog" depicts a woman staring gauntly from the canvas.  Look at her hand, young painters, and learn about the beauty of the structure and substance of things from Thomas Eakins.  A beautiful glowing blue dress, red stocking and richly russet dog blend with a muted red rug.


 In the painting of a thoughtful professor, William D. Marx, Eakins shows a marvelous control of the forms of the hands holding a compass and cigar in relation to the technical equipment on his desk.  A beautiful abstract arrangement, dear theoretical "purists," but clothed in the equally beautiful fabric of reality.


 "Mrs. Letitia Wilson Jordan Bacon" sparkles with contrasts of light flesh tones snapping against the black and grey of her gown, gold ochre of elbow-length gloves and sharp red of a bow at her neck; all resonating against a richly modulated alizarin background.


 The greatest picture in the exhibition, in terms of artistic achievement and difficulties attempted and overcome, is Eakins' justifiably famous "Gross Clinic."  It is essentially a study of closely-observed reality, artistic form and human character, the physical and intellectual power of the surgeon contrasting with the anesthetized, pallid patient and his cringing relative.  It is also a painting of the beauty and symbolic meaning of light and dark.  The overall darkness of the operating amphitheater is the background against which the opened thigh of the patient and the forehead and hand of the legendary doctor brightly gleam.  The luminous forehead literally radiates the creativity and strength of mind and will of the surgeon, while the contrast of his blood-stained thumb and forefinger with the darkness of his coat is one of the memorably beautiful moments in the painting.


 Eakins has his relative failures.  His colors are sometimes heavy, the paint fails to come alive, for example, in a portrait of A. W. Lee.   But Eakins' absolute honesty and genius for observation of the physical substance of reality as well as an intense probing beneath its surface, are always apparent.  His uncompromising search for, and revelation of, the emotional resonance of a sitter's character runs through all his work.  


 Yes...the color brown pervades most of the pictures, and in an hysterical age like ours may seem dull to eyes and hearts that crave blatant satisfaction.  But, for me, I would rather have one inch of Thomas Eakins' honest painting without so much as a single brushstroke worth of artifice, artistic complacency, self-satisfaction or self-indulgence, than all the square miles of canvas produced by the poseurs, self-seeking posturers and publicity-seeking pretenders that clutter the cultural life of today.




Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms