Thomas Eakins, 1844-1916

Self portrait, Thomas Eakins, 1904.
National Academy of Design, New York. 

After studying in Europe for nearly four years, the twenty-six-year-old Thomas Eakins returned to Philadelphia, his birthplace, in 1870, where he spent the rest of his life depicting the realities of his milieu with great force and beauty.
An uncompromising realism characterizes Thomas Eakins's philosophy of work and life. His rejection of conventional ideas about artistic training (for instance, he required all his students - female, as well as male - to draw from the nude) led, in part, to his forced resignation as director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1886. So, too, he rejected traditional ideas of beauty in his honest and revealing portraits. Not surprisingly, these essentially private portrayals were unpopular during Eakins's day.

Thomas Eakins
American, 1844-1916
Portrait of Mary Adeline Williams, 1899

Mary Adeline Williams, or Addie, was a long-time family friend who supported herself as a seamstress
and, for a period, even lived in Eakins's household. With a remarkable depth of emotion and characterization, Eakins used a dark background and severe dress and coiffure to throw into relief Addie's plain features. Her erect posture, pursed lips, and furrowed brow and softened by the three-quarter pose that casts her left side in shadow, while the light that illuminates her right side reveals the quiet resignation and sincerity of this intimate friend. Like Addie, most Eakins's subjects were friends, relatives, or personal acquaintances - natives of Philadelphia, where the artist spent almost his entire life.

The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull), 1871Thomas Eakins. MET
Dedicated to an active outdoor life as well as art, Eakins painted many studies of sportsmen on his return to the US in 1870, after three years of study in France and a visit to Spain. In his native Philadelphia, where rowing on the Schuylkill River was a favorite activity, the artist became a member of an exclusive rowing club and painted a number of river scenes set north of the Falls of Schuylkill Bridge , where there was a wide, smooth stretch of water.

This painting, The Champion Single Sculls, Eakins's first outdoor painting executed in the US, has a precision of detail and atmosphere unchallenged in America naturalistic painting at this time and reflects his European training in Realist painting sty;es. Set during a late summer afternoon, the work reveals tranquil, almost melancholy quality as the principal figure - rows across the broad passage of water before the distant Girard Avenue Bridge. Eakins himself is depicted in the red boat in the distance. Part of the artist's effect is achieved through his powerful colour control, revealed by by sky blues and pearly clouds above the orange and terracotta shades of the trees, complementing the statuesque rower, who pauses momentarily in the midst of his effort.