Posted by: Kay Heffernan | September 18, 2014

“It’s Too Real!”: Thomas Eakins and Portraiture

After our discussions of portraiture and the representational “reality” posited in these works, I thought to introduce all of you to Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), one of my favorite artists. An American artist who worked during and after the Victorian period, Eakins was, to say the least, a realist: he labored over his paintings, aiming for exactitude and accuracy in his subjects, natural and otherwise. Topics in his paintings included athleticism and new conceptions of masculinity – think of it as the shift from Mr. Skimpole and Mr. Turveydrop’s old aestheticism and “Deportment,” to Mr. George’s strapping presence in Bleak House – as well as studies of the body in medical scenes and portraiture.

Thomas Eakins, "Motion Study (Thomas Eakins Pole Vaulting)," 1884.

Thomas Eakins, “Motion Study (Thomas Eakins Pole Vaulting),” 1884, Marey Institute.

Perhaps most notably, Eakins worked alongside his friend Eadward Muybridge, a pioneer in the field of photography, to document and track human and animal subjects in motion. Eakins even served as a model for some of these locomotion studies. He strove to represent “the real” in his art. Photography, then, was a tool for Eakins to slow down the speed of observation, to make every detail perfect and correct. Eakins employed other, more controversial modes of study, including cadaver dissections, live nude modeling (the scandal!), and observations during operational theater (medical procedures during which a master surgeon would lecture, while performing surgery…).

There was no hiding from Eakins’ piercing eye, yet his portraiture provides an excellent example of the influence of photography on art. To my knowledge, Eakins did not use a camera to sketch the subjects of his portraits, but I find that the camera’s ability to record painstaking detail is evoked in, perhaps even enhanced by, these paintings. The classical artistic tradition to romanticize and idealize the sitter is entirely absent in these paintings. Eakins painted whomever he wanted, usually because their “look” interested him. In fact, Eakins did not receive many commissions for his portraiture because the sitter would be faced with an “uncompromising” (“Thomas Eakins: Painting,” Met Museum) reality – a near-photographic, yet deeply introspective rendering of their appearance.

I’ve posted some of my favorites below, all of which are entirely unlike the rosy-cheeked, porcelain-skinned Romantic portraits of the decades before.

Thomas Eakins, “Mrs. Edith Mahon,” 1904.

Thomas Eakins, “Potrait of Amelia C. van Buren,” 1891.

Thomas Eakins, “The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton,” 1900.

And, for good measure, here is Eakins’ self-portrait:

Thomas Eakins, “Self-portrait,” 1902.

(Ow, my heart.)

Biographical information taken from the Metropolitan Museum’s essay on Thomas Eakins.


  1. Where did you find the photography for the object “Motion Study (Thomas Eakins Pole Vaulting)” (1884)? Trying to determine who the rights holder is and how to use the photography in a publication. Thanks!

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