Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins was an American photographer, sculptor, teacher, and Realist painter. Although he did not earn recognition during his lifetime, today, he is regarded as one of the most fundamental artists in American art history.
Thomas C. Eakins was born on July 25, 1844, in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was the elder and only male of four children. His father, Benjamin Eakins, was a writing master and calligrapher who was able to support his family comfortably due to well-thought investments.
By observing his father at work, young Thomas manifested his artistic prowess at a relatively young age. He displayed abilities in perspective, precise line drawing, and using a grid to carefully lay out a composition, skills that would later prove to be applied in his artworks.
Eakins was also an athletic child who enjoyed swimming, rowing, ice skating, gymnastics, sailing, and wrestling; activities that the artist would later depict in his paintings and encourage his students to practice as well.
Eakins studied at the Central High School in Philadelphia, the foremost public school in arts and applied science. There, young Thomas would excel in mechanical drawing. He also met Charles Lewis Fussell, who also became an artist and lifelong friend; they would study together once again at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Eakins enrolled at the Academy in 1861, later attending anatomy and dissection classes at the Jefferson Medical College between 1864 and 1865. For a period, Eakins followed his father’s profession as a teacher, and due to his interest in human anatomy, he even considered becoming a surgeon.
Between 1866 and 1869, Eakins studied in Europe under several artists. One of his most noteworthy teachers of this period is the distinguished Orientalist painter Jean-Leon Gerome, with Eakins being his second American pupil. He also attended Leon Bonnat’s studio. A brief period in Spain consolidated the artist’s admiration for the Realist depictions of artists such as Jusepe de Ribera and Diego Velazquez.
Eakins returned to Philadelphia in 1869, where he would remain for the rest of his life. He continued to study human anatomy at Jefferson Medical College. In 1878, the artist was appointed as a professor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. However, he was later dismissed from the institution due to his insistence on using nude models for painting. There were also rumors surrounding the artist’s sexuality that remain to this day.