Thomas Eakins is widely considered one of the great American painters, an artist whose uncompromising realism helped move American art from the Victorian era into the modern age. He is also acclaimed as a paragon of integrity, one who stood up for his artistic beliefs even when they brought him personal and professional difficulty--as when he was fired from the Pennsylvania Academy of Art for removing a model's loincloth in a drawing class.
Yet beneath the surface of Eakins's pictures is a sense of brooding unease and latent violence--a discomfort voiced by one of his sitters who said his portrait "decapitated" her. In Eakins Revealed, art historian Henry Adams examines the dark side of Eakins's life and work, in a startling new biography that will change our understanding of this American icon. Based on close study of Eakins's work and new research in the Bregler papers, a major collection never fully mined by scholars, this volume shows Eakins was not merely uncompromising, but harsh and brutal both in his personal life and in his painting. Adams uncovers the bitter personal feuds and family tragedies surrounding Eakins--his mother died insane and his niece committed suicide amid allegations that Eakins had seduced her--and documents the artist's tendency toward psychological abuse and sexual harassment of those around him.
This provocative book not only unveils new facts about Eakins's life; more important, it makes sense, for the first time, of the enigmas of his work. Eakins Revealed promises to be a controversial biography that will attract readers inside and outside the art world, and fascinate anyone concerned with the mystery of artistic genius.
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For generations, Thomas Eakins--whose famous paintings include "The Gross Clinic" and "The Champion Single Sculls"--has been regarded as a 19th-century American hero. In Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist, art historian Henry Adams offers a radically different view that allows us to better understand "the intensity and emotional desperation of Eakins' art." Eakins' brush with scandal--he was dismissed from his teaching post at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1886 for removing the loincloth from a male model posing for a class of women students--is generally described by admiring art historians as a brave attempt to modernize stuffy old rules. Adams reveals that the artist was a life-long exhibitionist who appears to have preyed on vulnerable young women. Drawing on the Bregler papers, a cache of revealing documents from Eakins' studio that surfaced in the mid-1980s, Adams describes a man whose sense of masculine identity was thwarted by a deep identification with his mentally ill mother and an inability to please his father. Reviewing the major Eakins studies, beginning with the landmark monograph by Lloyd Goodrich, Adams finds that many aspects of the artist's life were suppressed to establish him as an all-American hero.
Adams presents his case with the mesmerizing power of a star attorney-at-law, painting a detailed picture of the artist's troubled personal life before launching into correspondences between the life and the art. Although readers may question some of Adams' interpretations--whether of Freudian theory or the emotional effect of a specific painting--the author's direct, probing style makes Eakins Revealed as riveting as a courtroom drama. In his concluding arguments, Adams proposes that the subjects of Eakins' late portraits, almost uniformly pensive and hollow-eyed, are in fact multiple versions of the brooding artist himself. Ultimately, the author's new assessments endow Eakins' work with an anxiety about the body and gender roles--issues that preoccupy many artists of our own time. Readers new to Eakins may be disappointed to find only small, black-and-white reproductions of the works in this book, and a few of the works discussed (such as "Crucifixion") are not illustrated at all. But skeptical specialists will be pleased to see that Adams includes copious (and often fascinating) notes and a full bibliography. —-Cathy CurtisAbout the Author:
Henry Adams is Chair of the Department of Art History at Case Western Reserve University. An award-winning art historian, he is the author of more than 200 publications on American art, including books, exhibition catalogues, and scholarly and popular articles. He collaborated with Ken Burns on a PBS documentary about the painter Thomas Hart Benton.
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