Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins was born and lived most of his life in Philadelphia. He was the first child of Caroline Cowperthwait Eakins, a woman of English and Dutch descent, and Benjamin Eakins, a writing master and calligraphy teacher of Scots-Irish ancestry. Benjamin Eakins grew up on a farm in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, the son of a weaver. He was successful in his chosen profession, and moved to Philadelphia in the early 1840s to raise his family. Thomas Eakins observed his father at work and by twelve demonstrated skill in precise line drawing, perspective, and the use of a grid to lay out a careful design, skills he later applied to his art.
He was an athletic child who enjoyed rowing, ice skating, swimming, wrestling, sailing, and gymnastics-activities he later painted and encouraged in his students. Eakins attended Central High School, the premier public school for applied science and arts in the city, where he excelled in mechanical drawing. He studied drawing and anatomy at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts beginning in 1861, and attended courses in anatomy and dissection at Jefferson Medical College from 1864-65. For a while, he followed his father's profession and was listed in city directories as a "writing teacher". His scientific interest in the human body led him to consider becoming a surgeon. Eakins then studied art in Europe from 1866 to 1870, notably in Paris with Jean-Leon Gerome, being only the second American pupil of the French realist painter famous as a master of Orientalism. He also attended the atelier of Leon Bonnat, a realist painter who emphasized anatomical preciseness, a method adapted by Eakins. While studying at L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he seems to have taken scant interest in the new Impressionist movement, nor was he impressed by what he perceived as the classical pretensions of the French Academy. A letter home to his father in 1868 made his aesthetic clear:
"She [the female nude] is the most beautiful thing there is in the world except a naked man, but I never yet saw a study of one exhibited ... It would be a godsend to see a fine man model painted in the studio with the bare walls, alongside of the smiling smirking goddesses of waxy complexion amidst the delicious arsenic green trees and gentle wax flowers & purling streams running melodious up & down the hills especially up. I hate affectation."
Already at age 24, "Nudity and verity were linked with an unusual closeness in his mind." Yet his desire for truthfulness was more expansive, and the letters home to Philadelphia reveal a passion for realism that included, but was not limited to, the study of the figure.
A trip to Spain for six months confirmed his admiration for the realism of artists such as Diego Velazquez and Jusepe de Ribera. In Seville in 1870 he painted Carmelita Requena, a portrait of a seven year old gypsy dancer more freely and colorfully painted than his Paris studies. That same year he attempted his first large oil painting, A Street Scene in Seville, wherein he first dealt with the complications of a scene observed outside the studio. Although he failed to matriculate and showed no works in the salons, Eakins succeeded in absorbing the techniques and methods of French and Spanish masters, and he began to formulate his artistic vision which he demonstrated in his first major painting upon his return to America. "I shall seek to achieve my broad effect from the very beginning," he declared.
Eakins's first works upon his return from Europe included a large group of rowing scenes, eleven oils and watercolors in all, of which the first and most famous is The Champion Single Sculling, known also as Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (1871). Both his subject and his technique drew attention. His selection of a contemporary sport was "a shock to the artistic conventionalities of the city". Eakins placed himself in the painting, in a scull behind Schmitt, his name inscribed on the boat.
Typically, the work entailed critical observation of the painting's subject, as well as preparatory drawings of the figure and perspective plans of the scull in the water. Its preparation and composition indicates the importance of Eakins' academic training in Paris. It was a completely original conception, true to Eakins' firsthand experience, and an almost startlingly successful image for the artist, who had struggled with his first outdoor composition less than a year before. His first known sale was the watercolor 'The Sculler' (1874). Most critics judged the rowing pictures successful and auspicious, but after the initial flourish, Eakins never revisited the subject of rowing and went on to other sports themes.
At the same time that he made these initial ventures into outdoor themes, Eakins produced a series of domestic Victorian interiors, often with his father, his sisters or friends as the subjects. 'Home Scene' (1871), 'Elizabeth at the Piano' (1875), 'The Chess Players' (1876) , and 'Elizabeth Crowell and her Dog' (1874), each dark in tonality, focus on the unsentimental characterization of individuals adopting natural attitudes in their homes. It was in this vein that in 1872 he painted his first large scale portrait, 'Kathrin', in which the subject, Kathrin Crowell, is seen in dim light, playing with a kitten. In 1874 Eakins and Crowell became engaged, they were still engaged five years later, when Crowell died of meningitis in 1879.
"I will never have to give up painting, for even now I could paint heads good enough to make a living anywhere in America."
For Eakins, portraiture held little interest as a means of fashionable idealization or even simple verisimilitude--it provided the opportunity to reveal the character of an individual through the modeling of solid anatomical form. This meant that, notwithstanding his youthful optimism, he would never be a commercially successful portrait painter. Few commissions came his way. But his total output of some two hundred and fifty portraits is characterized by "an uncompromising search for the unique human being".
Often this search for individuality required that the subject be painted in their working environment. His Portrait of Professor Benjamin H. Rand (1874) was a prelude to what many consider his most important work. In The Gross Clinic (1875), a renowned Philadelphia surgeon, Dr. Samuel D. Gross, is seen presiding over an operation to remove part of a diseased bone from a patient's thigh. Gross lectures in an amphitheater crowded with students at Jefferson Medical College. Eakins spent nearly a year on the painting, again choosing a novel subject, the discipline of modern surgery, in which Philadelphia was in the forefront. He initiated the project and may have had the goal of a grand work befitting a showing at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. Though rejected for the Art Gallery, the painting was shown on the centennial grounds at an exhibit of a U.S. Army Post Hospital. In sharp contrast, The Chess Players was accepted by the Committee and was much admired at the Centennial Exhibition, and critically praised.
In 1876, Eakins completed a portrait of Dr. John Brinton, surgeon of the Philadelphia Hospital, and famed for his Civil War service. Done in a 'dignified', more informal setting than The Gross Clinic, it was a personal favorite of Eakins, and The Art Journal proclaimed "it is in every respect a more favorable example of this artist's abilities than his much-talked-of composition representing a dissecting room." Other outstanding examples of his portraits include The Agnew Clinic (1889), Eakins' most important commission and largest painting, which depicted another eminent American surgeon, Dr. David Hayes Agnew, performing a mastectomy, The Dean's Roll Call (1899), featuring Dr. James W. Holland, and Professor Leslie W. Miller (1901), portraits of educators standing as if addressing an audience, Frank Hamilton Cushing (ca. 1895), in which the prominent ethnologist is seen performing an incantation in a Zuni pueblo, Professor Henry A. Rowland (1897), a brilliant scientist whose study of spectroscopy revolutionized his field, Antiquated Music (1900), in which Mrs. William D. Frismuth is shown seated amidst her collection of musical instruments, and The Concert Singer (1890-92), for which Eakins asked Weda Cook to sing "O rest in the Lord", so that he could study the muscles of her throat and mouth. In order to replicate the proper deployment of a baton, Eakins enlisted an orchestra conductor to pose for the hand seen in the lower left-hand corner of the painting.
Of Eakins' later portraits, many took as their subjects women who were friends or students. Unlike most portrayals of women at the time, they are devoid of glamor and idealization. For Letitia Wilson Jordan (1888), Eakins painted the sitter wearing the same evening dress in which he had seen her at a party. She is a substantial presence, a vision quite different from the era's fashionable portraiture. So, too, his portrait of Maud Cook (1895), where the obvious beauty of the subject is noted with "a stark objectivity".
The Portrait of Miss Amelia C. Van Buren (ca. 1890), a friend and former pupil, suggests the melancholy of a complex personality, and has been called "the finest of all American portraits". Even Susan Macdowell Eakins, a strong painter and former student who married Eakins in 1884, was not sentimentalized: despite its richness of color, The Artist's Wife and His Setter Dog (ca. 1884-89) is a penetratingly candid portrait.
Some of his most vivid portraits resulted from a late series done for the Catholic clergy, which included paintings of a cardinal, archbishops, bishops, and monsignors. As usual, most of the sitters were engaged at Eakins' request, and were given the portraits when Eakins had completed them. In portraits of His Eminence Sebastiano Cardinal Martinelli (1902), Archbishop William Henry Elder (1903), and Monsignor James P. Turner (ca. 1906), Eakins took advantage of the brilliant vestments of the offices to animate the compositions in a way not possible in his other male portraits.
Deeply affected by his dismissal from the Academy, Eakins's later career focused on portraiture. His steadfast insistence on his own vision of realism, in addition to his notoriety from his school scandals, combined to impact his income negatively in later years. Even as he approached these portraits with the skill of a highly trained anatomist, what is most noteworthy is the intense psychological presence of his sitters. However, it was precisely for this reason that his portraits were often rejected by the sitters or their families. As a result, Eakins came to rely on his friends and family members to model for portraits. His portrait of Walt Whitman (1887-1888) was the poet's favorite.
Eakins married Susan Hannah MacDowell, one of his students at the Academy, in 1884. She was the fifth of eight children of a Philadelphia engraver, well known in the artistic community.
She was 25 when Eakins met her at the Hazeltine Gallery where "The Gross Clinic" was being exhibited in 1875. Unlike many, she was impressed by the controversial painting and she decided to study with him at the Academy, which she attended for 6 years, adopting a sober, realistic style similar to her teacher's. She was an outstanding student and winner of the Mary Smith prize for the best painting by a matriculating woman artist.
After their marriage, she only painted sporadically and spent most of her time supporting her husband's career, entertaining guests and students, and faithfully backing him in his difficult times with the Academy, even when some members of her family aligned against Eakins.
She and Eakins both shared a passion for photography, both as photographers and subjects, and employed it as a tool for their art. She also posed nude for many of his photos and took images of him. Both had separate studios in their home.
After his death in 1916, she returned to painting, adding considerably to her output right up to the 1930s, in a style that became warmer, looser, and brighter in tone. She died in 1938. Thirty-five years after her death, in 1973, she had her first one-woman exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.