Thomas Eakins
Biography of American Realist Painter, Portrait Artist.

Pin it

The Gross Clinic (1875)
Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)


Academic Training
Artist and Art Teacher
Max Schmitt in a Single Scull
Family Portraits
The Gross Clinic
Other Portraiture

Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (1871)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.


Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins was one of the best portrait artists of the 19th century, and one of the great masters of figure painting in America. Works like Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (1871, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and The Gross Clinic (1875, Philadelphia Museum of Art) mark a high point of psychological realism in American art, revealing Eakins' outstanding control of perspective, human anatomy, mechanical drawing, and the study of the human form in motion. In all Eakins' realist painting, the human figure is central; his composition is enlivened by a use of tenebrism that derives from Rembrandt (1606-69) and Velazquez (1599-1660) and yet is wholly personal and American in execution and feeling. Eakins received little official recognition during his lifetime, but is now considered to be the finest exponent of figurative realism in American modern art. For details of similar 19th century realist artists, see the great Russian portraitists Ivan Kramskoy (1837-1887) and Ilya Repin (1844-1930).

Benjamin West (1738-1820)
History painter, portrait artist.
John Singleton Copley (1738-1815)
Portraitist and history painter.
Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828)
Portraitist of George Washington.
Whistler (1834-1903)
Noted for his Nocturnes, etchings.
Winslow Homer (1836-1910)
Seascapes, Civil War painting.
Edward Hopper (1882-1967)
Noted for urban genre-paintings.
Grant Wood (1892-1942)
Iowa-born regionalist painter
noted for American Gothic.
Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)
Pennsylvanian tempera
painter of Christina's World.

For the best works, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings.

For an explanation of the
terminology, see:
Art: Definition and Meaning.

Academic Training

Eakins was born and spent most of his life in Philadelphia, where he studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and later anatomy and dissection at Jefferson Medical College. From 1866 to 1869 he studied art in Paris at the French Academy, under Jean-Leon Gerome - famous for his stylish Orientalist painting - and also in the workshop of Leon Bonnat, a realist painter whose focus on anatomical precision was fully embraced by his American pupil. During his stay in France, Eakins showed no interest in the new Impressionism movement (although he did share their enthusiasm for photography), nor was he impressed by the classical pretensions of the Academy. Instead, he paid a six month visit to Spain where he studied the great Spanish Masters of Realism like Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) and Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) and made his first attempts at completing a large oil painting. As later works would show, his European studies allowed him to absorb numerous painterly techniques from the French and Spanish masters, especially in the use of painting colour, composition and chiaroscuro. Above all, his European experience confirmed his aesthetic conviction that the Nude was the basis of all real art: a conviction that underpinned much of his creativity, as well as much of the controversy that dogged him during his life.

Artist and Art Teacher

Eakins returned to America in 1870 and embarked on a professional career as an artist and teacher, until his health began to fail some forty years later. Throughout these parallel careers, the study of the nude was pivotal. He taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1876, became its head in 1879, and resigned in 1886 because of opposition to his insistence on the total nudity of the model. This issue was aggravated by two other matters.

First, his uncompromising teaching methods which were rigidly aimed at the depiction of the human body. He offered no help in drawing from antique sculpture, and gave students only a short study in charcoal drawing before introducing them to painting. He devoted rigorous attention to all aspects of the human figure, including figure drawing from life, anatomical study of the human and animal body, and surgical dissection, as well as the fundamentals of form, and studies in linear perspective involving mathematics. In addition, he encouraged students to use photography as an aid to understanding anatomy and the study of motion.

Second, his insistence on the value of nude models led to accusations of improper behaviour towards his female students. For example, when explaining the movement of the pelvis to a female student, he undressed and gave her a physical demonstration! Such incidents boosted by the bohemianism of Eakins and his circle, the intensity of his friendships with men, and his generally provocative attitudes led to his dismissal. Nonetheless, he was greatly admired as a teacher and when he left the Academy many of his students followed him and formed the Art Students League of Philadelphia, where he later instructed. He also lectured at numerous other schools, including the Art Students League of New York, the National Academy of Design, and the Art Students Guild in Washington, DC. Moreover, before quitting the Academy he married one of his top students, Susan Hannah MacDowell, the daughter of a Philadelphia engraver, well known within the artistic community.


Max Schmitt in a Single Scull

As an artist, Eakins achieved unusually rapid success. Among his earliest works upon his return from Europe were a group of rowing pictures - in both oils and watercolour - which included his first masterpiece Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (1871, also called The Champion Single Sculling). Meticulously prepared using a series of preparatory drawings of the figure and the perspective of the composition - which highlighted the importance of his academic training in Paris - it was an exceptionally successful work for a painter who less than a year before had struggled to complete his first outdoor composition.

Family Portraits

At the same time, he began a series of family portraits - a sort of series of domestic Victorian interiors - using his family and friends as sitters. Works like Home Scene (1871), Elizabeth at the Piano (1875), The Chess Players (1876), and Elizabeth Crowell and her Dog (1874), each set in a low tonal key, were unsentimental characterizations of people in their homes. In total, he produced several hundred portraits, usually of family or friends, or prominent Philadelphia figures in the arts, sciences, medicine, and religion. In addition to these studio-style paintings, Eakins painted a number of figurative works set in the outdoors, featuring the nude or lightly clad figure in motion, which illustrated his painterly skills in modelling and perspective. The most notable examples include The Biglin Brothers Racing (1872; National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), and The Swimming Hole, (1884-5; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas). These pictures also enabled Eakins to develop his talent in the practical application of motion photography.

The Gross Clinic

Eakins' series of indoor portraits culminated in his second masterpiece entitled The Gross Clinic (Portrait of De Samuel Gross) (1875, Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts), described by one critic as one of the greatest portrait paintings ever executed in America. In this work, the renowned Philadelphia surgeon, Dr. Samuel D. Gross, is featured presiding over an operation in a packed amphitheatre at Jefferson Medical College. Dramatically illuminated, the surgeon's heroically conceived presence is designed to reflect the discipline of modern surgery, for which Philadelphia was then a leading centre, and the work was intended for show at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. But it was rejected by the selection committee on the grounds of its depiction of blood, and was shown in the medical section instead. As it happened, another of his other portraits The Chess Players was accepted for the Centennial Exhibition and received much critical praise.

The Gross Clinic, despite being Eakins' finest work, did not receive the acclaim it was due, being criticised for its adverse effect on viewers with weak nerves! Ultimately bought by Jefferson Medical College for the paltry sum of $200, its owners now describe it in altogether different terms: "Today the once maligned picture is celebrated as a great nineteenth-century medical history painting, featuring one of the most superb portraits in American art". Its value has also jumped. In November 2006, the Thomas Jefferson authorities agreed to sell it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC for $68,000,000, the highest price for a work by Eakins and a record price for an individual American portrait. A month later, a group of art patrons collected $68,000,000 in order to retain the painting in Philadelphia. Since then it has been on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.


Eakins was an avid and innovative user of the camera, whose influence can be seen in works like Mending the Net (1881) and Arcadia (1883). However, he employed photography as part of his drive for realism and authenticity rather than as a short-cut or aid to composition and perspective. Unfortunately it was precisely this quest for realism that attracted controversy. His so-called Naked Series, (from 1883) consisted of nude photographs of students and professional models, taken to illustrate real human anatomy from several specific angles, and were displayed for study at the Academy. Although poses were typically traditional in nature, the sheer number may have contributed to a sense of unease about his artistic methods, and his focus on female nudes and also male nudes.

Other Portraiture

In 1876, Eakins painted a less controversial portrait of Dr. John Brinton, surgeon of the Philadelphia Hospital, which received more favourable comment. But perhaps the climax of Eakins' portrait art was his 1890s series of portraits of artists, musicians, and other prominent figures, painted after he quit the Academy. Examples of these exceptional 19th century portraits include: The Agnew Clinic (1889), his largest painting, which featured another eminent American surgeon, Dr. David Hayes Agnew, performing a mastectomy; Professor Henry A. Rowland (1897); The Dean's Roll Call (1899), depicting Dr. James W. Holland, and Professor Leslie W. Miller (1901); Antiquated Music (1900), showing Mrs. William D. Frishmuth surrounded by her collection of musical instruments; and The Concert Singer (1890-92), for which Eakins asked his sitter Weda Cook to sing a song to allow him to study the muscles of her throat and mouth. Eakins also completed a number of other portraits of female friends which, contrary to the fashion of the day, were deliberately devoid of glamour and idealization. This works include: Portrait of Letitia Wilson Jordan (1888); The Artist's Wife and His Setter Dog (1884-89); Portrait of Maud Cook (1895); and the melancholic Portrait of Miss Amelia Van Buren (1891; Phillips Collection, Washington DC). Arguably, the excellence of works like Mrs Edith Mahon (1904; Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Mass.) elevates Eakins above all his American contemporaries.

Despite Eakins' unique painterly skills, his steadfast insistence on his own vision of realism, as well as the whiff of scandal attaching to him from his days at the Academy, combined to reduce his earning potential as a portraitist. In fact, his intense and realist depictions were often too stark for his customers, causing them (or their families) to reject the portraits entirely.


In addition to his painting, Eakins' expertise in equine anatomy led to an invitation, in 1891, from his friend the sculptor William Rudolf O'Donovan, to collaborate in the creation of bronze equestrian reliefs of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant for the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. Eakins did the horses, O'Donovan the men. (See also the sculpture of Daniel Chester French.)


Eakins did experience some recognition in the 1900s - for instance he was made a National Academician in 1902 - but most art critics approached his work with some reserve. It is difficult to say whether this was purely a reflection of his art, or a commentary on his personal life. In any event, it wasn't until the year following his death that he was honoured with a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, and in 1917-18 at the Pennsylvania Academy. This despite the obvious genius of the artist and the influence he had on late 19th and early 20th century American Realism. Among his followers were Robert Henri, George Luks, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and George Bellows - all future members of the Ashcan School. Nowadays, excluding the Florence-born American expatriate painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), he is regarded, not only as the finest portraitist but also one of the most important modern artists in the history of American art.

Paintings by Thomas Eakins

Works by Thomas Eakins hang in the best art museums in America.

• For more biographies of American portrait artists, see: Famous painters.
• For more information about 19th century painting in America, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.