For the first time in more than three decades, the work of 19th century American painter and photographer, Thomas Eakins is on view in a major traveling exhibition. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is now hosting an exhibit on this painter, who is now regarded as one of the most innovative American artists.
When Thomas Eakins painted "The Gross Clinic" in 1875, he expected the work to launch his career. He had spent a year depicting a surgeon operating on his patient's thigh. In the backdrop, an audience of students takes notes, and the patient's mother recoils in revulsion, as Dr. Thomas Gross and his team of surgeons use scalpels to cut the human flesh.
Although the painting is mostly dark browns, blacks and grays, the illuminated head of Dr. Gross and the blood-covered hands of the surgeons dominate it. Metropolitan Museum of Art Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, Barbara Weinberg, says Eakins' contemporary critics were appalled by the gory detail. The painting, "The Gross Clinic" was sold to a medical college for just $200 and was deemed "unfit for women and children".
Now, Curator Weinberg says the painting is viewed differently. "Is 'The Gross Clinic,' Eakins' great work of 1875, one of the most important paintings of the 19th century?" he asked. "It certainly is. Some people have even said it is simply the most important American painting."
"The Gross Clinic," which is large in size and dramatic in tone, has been described as a work of "modern heroism." In the painting, Eakins was praising the wonders of modern science, drawing from the world around him in Philadelphia.
Experts say it is that "realism" that made Eakins so innovative. Although he had studied with the Impressionists in Paris, he returned to the United States and in the early 1870s he created his own style, which was uniquely American and inspired future artists such as Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth.
Curator Darrell Sewell, who organized the exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, says audiences in Philadelphia, Paris and now New York are rediscovering Thomas Eakins. "He was very independent," Mr. Sewell said. "He used his academic training for realist art. He really made something that really did not look like any other artist in Europe or America. I think that is one of the things that interested people in Paris - Eakins was such an original figure in that he really developed a kind of art that was distinctly his own."
Eakins was one of the first artists to use the new tool of photography to master meticulous detail in his realistic works. Sometimes, he would trace photographs as a basis for his paintings. Many of the photographs he used were recently discovered and are on display. Eakins' dedication to "realism" is also evident in the nudes and portraits of his latter years, which failed to flatter or idealize his subjects because he included their physical flaws.
But the realist painter is best known for his work honoring the America he saw around him. Eakins painted scenes of sporting events such as baseball and rowing. Curator Weinberg describes "The Champion Single Skull," of 1871 which she calls Eakins' first masterpiece.
"It shows his boyhood friend Max Schmidt," Ms. Weinberg said, "who was a Philadelphia lawyer and a very gifted amateur rower, in a skull (a rowboat used for racing), pausing in an afternoon practice session in the Schuylkill river in Philadelphia taking a look at us, inviting us into the painting to contemplate his activity, his skill. The light shines across him and Eakins has detailed every aspect of Schmidt's appearance, his body, his face with tremendous interest in every nuance of appearance."
While Eakins has received growing recognition in the last three decades, fame eluded him during his lifetime. He was a controversial figure often embroiled in scandal. Eakins was forced to resign from his teaching position at the Pennsylvania Institute of Art after he had a nude model take off his loincloth in front of a class that included women. But in contemporary times, Curator Weinberg says, Eakins has generated more art history books than any American artist.