The other day I finished The Revenge of Thomas Eakins which I found used in a book store while I was down in Florida. It is an excellent book if you like Thomas Eakins. I always liked Eakins. When I was in High School my art teacher, Mr. Beaver, used to tell the story of how Eakins, jaded and unappreciated most of his life, rode up on his bicycle to accept a medal and promptly rode off and had it melted down for its cash value. He was a pioneer of realism in America at the same time that Modernism was beginning to sweep through Europe. He was a champion of the figure and utilized both anatomy (he studied with Dr. Gross) and photography to make brutally honest paintings that were less than flattering for most of his patrons. His painting, The Gross Clinic, which was shown at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia (the first World’s Fair in America) wasn’t allowed to be exhibited in the main (or secondary) exhibition hall and was instead shown in a mock Army hospital because it was deemed to “not be art.” After The Agnew Clinic was rejected by New York’s Society of American Artists he wrote a letter severing the relationship that said:
“For the last three years my paintings have been rejected by you, one of them the Agnew portrait, a composition more important than any I have ever seen upon your walls. Rejections for three years eliminates all elements of chance; and while in my opinion there are qualities in my work which entitle it to rank with the best in your society, your society’s opinion must be that it ranks below much that I consider frivolous and superficial. These opinions are irreconcilable.”
I wish I could write that letter to a couple of organizations that have rejected me over and over again over the years. Here are some of his best paintings.