New Books — Eakins

Two new books on Eakins


Portrait: The Life of Thomas Eakins  M Eakin .E15 M26 2007

Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer McFeely’s brief life of the great painter Thomas Eakins reads like an attempt at a corrective to Henry Adams’ Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist (2005). Where Adams saw a dark and possibly dangerous man, McFeely sees a tragic figure who, after glimpsing possible fulfillment as an open homosexual in Paris, returned to his hometown of Philadelphia and a closeted life. Not quite convincingly, McFeely argues that Eakins’ interest in the nude male figure–which reached its zenith in his most famous painting, Swimming–was less an expression of homoerotic desire than a function of his yearning for a transcendent freedom of the kind imagined by Thoreau. And although McFeely recounts Eakins’ late friendship with Walt Whitman, he seems to fail to recognize a passage from Eakins’ notebook as a quotation from the poet. But McFeely’s sympathy for Eakins the man translates in positive ways to Eakins the painter, and his readings of several of the artist’s masterpieces, The Gross Clinic in particular, are insightful and fresh. Kevin Nance — Booklist

The Revenge of Thomas Eakins by Sydney D. Kirkpatrick

M Eakin .E15 K55 2006

Biographer Kirkpatrick brings the cinematic clarity of a documentary filmmaker to this portrait of Thomas Eakins, the controversial Philadelphia portrait artist whose “failure to abide by the artistic trends that defined his times” resulted in work that was richly interesting and highly controversial. Kirkpatrick takes considerable pains to portray the contradictory philosophical moorings and childlike prurience that marked Eakins’s eccentric career. Prior to Eakins’s resignation from the Pennsylvania Academy amid muddied allegations of impropriety, his students held him-and the capital “E” he would place on canvases in which he saw marked improvement-in great esteem. And though he was a pioneer in the use of photography and a champion of nude modeling (he was “starved for the nude,” as one woman who knew him put it), Eakins’s stubborn social gracelessness and proclivity for intrigue made his place in the Philadelphia art world “something like that of a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter.” Kirkpatrick’s ability to suggest, through the use of letters and family anecdotes, that Eakins was aware of-and to a degree, fostered-the Byronic attitude (drafting his own obituary, Eakins wrote, “My honors are misunderstanding, persecution, & neglect, enhanced because unsought”) that characterized his career is both brilliant and subtle. But most importantly, Kirkpatrick gives Eakins convincing depth that reminds readers of the ways biography can enhance appreciation of art. — Publishers Weekly
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