Saturday, March 28, 2015

Thomas Eakins, realist painter of the late 19th century America by Kaye Spencer

When I think of artists whose paintings and sculptures captured the essence of the American West, the names that come to mind are:

Charles Russell (1864-1926) His dramatic representations usually show men on horseback.
"Bronc to Breakfast" - Charles Russell
  George Catlin (1796-1872) His work was predominantly concerned with the Native Americans.
"Tipis" - George Catlin

Thomas Moran (1837-1926) His paintings focused on western landscapes.

"Green River Wyoming" - Thomas Moran
 Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) His paintings leaned toward sweeping, romantic landscapes.
"Prong-horned Antelope" - Albert Bierstadt

Frederick Remington (1861-1909) His artistic talents leaned toward paintings and sculptures involving cavalry officers, Native Americans, and horses. He provided illustrations of the American West for magazines.
"Fight for the Waterhole" - Frederick Remington
   To this esteemed list, I would add the Philadelphia native, Thomas Eakins (1844-1909).

Thomas Eakins self-portrait

His works, while not strictly focused on the west, are a more well-rounded study of the human condition of the time, albeit, the ‘eastern’ time

Thomas Eakins

Life in the American east and in Europe influenced the happenings in the west. The fashions, medicine and medical milestones, transportation, sports, leisure, and the day-to-day living “back east” had eventual impacts on life out west, and Thomas Eakins’ paintings show us those connections. For me, the ‘life’ he painted and preserved on canvas and his photography tell a broader story of what real life was like back then.

Thomas Eakins
Thomas Eakins
Eakins was a realist painter, photographer, photographer, sculptor, and fine arts educator. Other than trips abroad, he lived his life in his home town of Philadelphia, and the subjects of his art were the people around him. Eakins was a ‘colorful’ character for all of his 71 years, and he possessed a life-long passion for the human body as the ultimate art form. This information from Wikipedia sums up his work and his philosophy as a teacher:

He painted several hundred portraits, usually of friends, family members, or prominent people in the arts, sciences, medicine, and clergy. Taken en masse, the portraits offer an overview of the intellectual life of Philadelphia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; individually, they are incisive depictions of thinking persons.

He believed that women should "assume professional privileges" as would men. Life classes and dissection were segregated but women had access to male models (who were nude but for loincloths).

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…

"Home Ranch" - Thomas Eakins -  I often used this painting as a creative writing prompt when I taught writing classes.

"Four-in-Hand - May Morning in the Park" - Thomas Eakins
"Cowboys in the Badlands" - Thomas Eakins
I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art a few years ago and view the Thomas Eakins exhibit. (yes, THAT museum with the “Rocky” stairs) So for fun, here’s a picture of me and Rocky.

Kaye Spencer with the Rocky statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2009)

For more information about Thomas Eakins, I would direct you to the website devoted to his life and works — — and to this book, The Revenge of Thomas Eakins by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick.

Until next time,

Twitter - @kayespencer

Note: The images included in this post are in the Public Domain and can be found through the Google Art Project, which is an “online platform through which the public can access high-resolution images of artworks housed in the initiative's partner museums.” Some images are Kaye’s that she took while visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art in June 2009.


  1. Thanks, Kaye, for brightening my Saturday. I am always amazed at the detail photographic quality of these paintings. Eakins' work is exceptional. And, you and Rocky make quite a pair.

    1. Tom,

      I am in awe of people who have painting, sculpting, and drawing talents. Even with a 'paint by number' canvas, my end result is unrecognizable as anything but a botch, blotch, smear. *grin* My stick people are pretty sad, too.

      And, thanks. Rocky and I do present quite a charming couple.

  2. This article is very astute, very intellectual, and very well done. Thanks for the review of all these artists. If you apply this to your writing, your work must be very good indeed.

  3. Throughly enjoyed this post. I've been a fan of realistic painting all of my life and these were beautiful samples.
    I think that is why I enjoy the photography of William H Jackson and Laura Gilpin, to name a couple of early photographers in the West.

    Thank you for adding to my list of artists to savor. Doris McCraw/Angela Raines

    1. Doris,

      I'm a fan of realism paintings, too. It's amazing to me that so many early photographers were able to capture such outstanding 'Kodak' moments with the cumbersome, inconvenient, and unsophisticated equipment (by our current photographic capabilities). Photographers are artists, no doubt about that. :-)

  4. Very interesting, Kaye. I did not know about Thomas Eakins before, but shall investigate more now. Thanks for posting.

  5. Keith,

    Thomas Eakins led a life of filled with controversy over his artistic expression. He was intrigued (perhaps obsessed?) with creating paintings of the human body, particularly in the nude form. His work certainly kept the 'societal censors' in an uproar.

  6. Kaye, I did not know of Eakins' work. Thank you for showing. Nicely written.

    1. Jerry,

      I wouldn't have discovered Eakins' work either had I not been on a university-sponsored teachers of history 'excursion' in 2009 to Philadelphia, Gettysburg, and several other early American historical locations. The Philadelphia Museum of Art was one of the planned day trips. So many artists and so little time to really enjoy and appreciate them...

  7. I'm always thrilled to find another painter of the West. Thanks for the introduction to Thomas Eakins. My favorite is Bierstadt, who so beautifully blended realism and romanticism. I could stare at one of his paintings for hours, just reveling in the details of his work.

    1. Vonn,


      I agree. Bierstadt's landscapes make me feel as if I'm really there in a more realistic way than Thomas Moran's (not to say his paintings are lesser works).

  8. Beautiful paintings, Kaye, by all. I love Thomas Eakins, too. Albert Bierstadt's painting, Emigrants Crossing the Plains used to hang in one of the main galleries at the Nat'l. Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum when I worked there. I loved that painting! One thing I did not know: artists of that time would paint several paintings of the same subject with very few differences in them. Here's a link--it's a gorgeous painting, too. I really love this post--so many great paintings out there--Another one I love that paints this time period is Morgan Weistling.,_or_The_Oregon_Trail_%28Albert_Bierstadt%29,_1869.jpg

  9. Emigrants Crossing the Plains is so beautiful with the pinks and golds in the sunset and the clouds. I've seen those same colors on the prairie many times. I would have had the dickens of a time getting my work done had I ever worked in an art museum---so many wonderful distractions. *wink*

  10. Love Eakins, and loved learning of his colorful life and reputation. I believe he and his wife painted each other in the nude as well.