Monday, November 22, 2010
Me And Tom
One of my favorite artists is Thomas Eakins. Maybe you heard of him? Eakins was a premier artist in the Nineteenth century. Without getting too biographical, Eakins was born in Philadelphia, as was I. That's about all our lives have in common... Eakins was a master craftsman. He didn't sell a whole lot while he was alive, but his paintings were appreciated for their technical skill. Eakins had classical training at Jean-Leon Gerome's Atelier in Paris. (But it is interesting to me that he was not beyond actually projecting a photo onto a blank canvas to begin a painting). Eakins was forced to resign his teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy when it was learned he allowed both male and female students to draw from a nude model in the same class. To give you an idea how radical and shocking this was to Victorian sensibilities, eighty years later, in the 1950's, Americans were horrified that a fully clothed Elvis Presley was shaking his ass in front of teenage girls! Eakins kept on painting, to mixed reviews. He went more and more into portraiture, but he had to seek out his models, very rarely getting any commissions. Some patrons who did commission him were so disappointed in the results, they didn't even take their portrait. Eakins died in 1916, well known, admired, but never considered a true master until the last twenty years or so. But I like him.
Here is one of his first big, important works called The Biglin Brothers Turning At The Stake.
Notice the great handling of the atmosphere. The hard and soft edges he used to create depth and distance. Check out his use of color to portray a warm Philadelphia summer day. Look at how he treated the details of the boat, and the reflections. He didn't blow up a photo for this. There are a ton of his preparatory sketches still around. Now step back and take a look at the whole painting. Geez, have you ever seen such a boring rendition of action in your life? The poses are stiff, the boat just sits there, frozen. He didn't capture the movement of the action, just the objects in a scene. That's Eakins in the left distance, waving. I think he's yelling at them to move, or something! This one didn't sell.
Here's another one of his famous ones, The Gross Clinic.
Were you to stand in front of this large painting in person, you'd be impressed by the handling he gave this. The chiaroscuro effect, the atmosphere and modeling of the figures all are the work of a master. OK, but what is that guy with the scalpel doing? He looks like he forgot where he parked his car. He's supposed to be teaching, but he's just standing there completely emotionless. Bet those students learned a whole lot... Due to it's graphic depiction of an operation, this one was kept out of the public eye for a number of years. Eakins never sold it.
What does this have to do with me? Well, Eakins loved painting for the challenge of it. He loved science, technology, mathematics. I think Eakins was more absorbed in the how, not the what he was going to paint. I can dig that, because that's the way I approach a painting. I can't get really excited by a picture unless I see it as a puzzle to be solved. Otherwise, I'm climbing the same hill over and over. But I, like Eakins, sometimes forget that the picture is the most important thing in a painting. The difference between us is that Eakins still did masterful works, and I do not.
Some people paint a beautiful object. Some people make beautiful paintings of an object. The artists I really admire make beautiful paintings of beautiful objects. Thomas Eakins could do that when he wanted to. But by the time he painted this gorgeous painting of Maude Cook, nobody cared. I think it's one of his all-time best.
So, whose your favorite artist? Do you have anything in common with them? I wish I could have known Thomas Eakins, I think we could have gotten along. But there's no way I was going to go swimming with him...