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Remembering Thomas Eakins, the man who introduced the camera to the American art studio

July 25, 2016 /Photography News/ Born 173 years ago today, Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins was an American photographer, realist painter, sculptor, and fine arts educator. He is widely acknowledged to be one of the most important artists in American art history.

Eakins has been credited with having "introduced the camera to the American art studio" (Rosenheim, Jeff L., "Thomas Eakins, Artist-Photographer, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art", Thomas Eakins and the Metropolitan Museum, page 45. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994). During his study in Europe, he was exposed to the use of photography by the French realists, though the use of photography was still frowned upon as a shortcut by traditionalists. In the late 1870s he was introduced to the photographic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, particularly the equine studies, and became interested in using the camera to study sequential movement. He performed his own motion studies, usually involving the nude figure, and even developed his own technique for capturing movement on film. Where Muybridge's system relied on a series of cameras triggered to produce a sequence of individual photographs, Eakins preferred to use a single camera to produce a series of exposures on one negative.

Study in Human Motion. Photograph by Thomas Eakins. 1880s
Study in Human Motion. Photograph by Thomas Eakins.
Eakins' so-called "Naked Series", which began in 1883, were nude photos of students and professional models which were taken to show real human anatomy from several specific angles, and were often hung up and displayed for study at the school. Later, less regimented poses were taken indoors and out, of men, women, and children, including his wife. The most provocative, and the only ones combining males and females, were nude photos of Eakins and a female model.

Thomas Eakins carrying a woman, 1885. Photograph: circle of Eakins.
Thomas Eakins carrying a woman, 1885. Photograph: circle of Eakins.
In all, about eight hundred photographs are now attributed to Eakins and his circle, most of which are figure studies, both clothed and nude, and portraits. No other American artist of his time matched Eakins' interest in photography, nor produced a comparable body of photographic works. 

After Eakins obtained a camera in 1880, several paintings are known to have been derived at least in part from his photographs. Some figures appear to be detailed transcriptions and tracings from the photographs by some device like a magic lantern, which Eakins took pains to cover up with oil paint.
 
Since the 1990s, Eakins has emerged as a major figure in sexuality studies in art history, for both the homoeroticism of his male nudes and for the complexity of his attitudes toward women. Controversy shaped much of his career as a teacher and as an artist. He insisted on teaching men and women "the same", used nude male models in female classes and vice versa, and was accused of abusing female students. Recent scholarship suggests that these scandals were grounded in more than the "puritanical prudery" of his contemporaries— as had once been assumed— and that Eakins's progressive academic principles may have protected unconscious and dubious agendas. These controversies may have been caused by a combination of factors such as the bohemianism of Eakins and his circle (in which students, for example, sometimes modeled in the nude for each other), the intensity and authority of his teaching style, and Eakins's inclination toward unorthodox or provocative behavior.
 
Thomas Eakins died on June 25, 1916.
 


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