wrote the critic Royal Cortissoz in 1925, “need to know
the soil in which their evolving art is rooted.” Establishment
of nineteenth-century American Realism’s reputation is not
unrelated to the climate of isolationism that was to leave its
mark on the United States after the onset of the Great Depression.
On the cultural level, such withdrawal favored an exclusive celebration
of America as one’s artistic compost and allowed this desire
for artistic independence to be expressed in the promotion of
Realism. The words uttered a generation earlier by the painter
William Merritt Chase--viz., “I would rather go to Europe
than to go to Heaven”--would no longer have fit any place.
Indeed, such an attack on one’s “spiritual homeland”
had become outdated.
In order to get
a true grasp on the remonstrative character of these positions
during the interwar period, it is fitting to go back over a humiliating
memory in American art history. From the early nineteenth century
onward, American art felt that, with landscape painting, it had
hold of its characteristic art form. Identity-based art had even
helped the country put an end to the strong disapproval of art
found in the Puritan ethic. Art and religion could thenceforth
converge in Nature. And yet this nature was quite singular, for
it remained associated with a messianic plan that conferred upon
landscape the grandeur usually associated with historical painting.
If what the American territory offered painters was a divine mirror,
what painters held up to the nation was an ideal image of itself
taken to be a genuine self-portrait. (Illustrations 1 and 2)
This motif of
national pride was going to collapse, however, in the wake of
sarcastic remarks put forth by Parisian critics during the Universal
Exhibition of 1867. Their violent rejection of American landscape
painting undermined the confidence of the American art world and
put it back into a position of apprenticeship and dependency vis-a-vis
The “Spiritual Homeland” Versus Cosmopolitanism
The interwar period,
on the contrary, was a time of consolidation for America’s
national identity. Some critics were to make it one of their missions
to define “objective” criteria of Americanness. The
past becoming the condition for the future, to invent for oneself
an artistic past was also to stand out in contrast to present-day
art and to maintain the supremacy of the figurative, the real,
and the local over against the basic premises of modernism. Quite
logically, the resentment certain critics felt toward any form
of cosmopolitanism could even end up undermining the prestige
such honored figures of the previous generation as James Whistler
and John Singer Sargent had enjoyed.
Christine Savinel has highlighted a coincidence brought out by
Whistler’s detractors--that between the “wavering
identity” of his image as an artist (moving as it did between
Europe and the United States) and the pictorial “blurriness”
of his work. Whistler was accused of establishing the reign of
“no-place.” An apostle of art for art’s sake,
Whistler made of art “his own place,” thereby rendering
impossible any kind of national enrollment. As for the cosmopolitan
celebrity of a Sargent, it rested upon the success of his “transnational”
painting of society figures. In the name of an ideology of the
highly finished product and of a social morality of work well
done, some compared the painter’s “fa presto”
style to a licentious and immoral form of deviancy (illustration
3) and his aristocratic bent to a European sort of impropriety.
Cosmopolitanism, as we know, has always had a whiff of decadence
During the 1930s,
some supporters of Regionalism--the meticulous figurative art
of rural America--were going to harden their views on the country’s
cultural heritage and thereby rediscover, in the art of the past,
the “faithful reflection of the American spirit.”
One of the most chauvinistic defenders of this “specific”
and “particular” American-style art, Thomas Craven,
was to radicalize the paradigm of manliness maintained by the
upholders of Realism. The “effeminate” would thenceforth
be the synonym for the “foreign,” and abstraction,
an imported kind of art, would be viewed as inevitably devoted
to artifice--as opposed to Realism, an authentic “local
product”--and “impotence.” From this perspective,
Realism would signal the return “to masculine virtues, for,”
wrote Craven, “all the great painters are rude, gruff, and
In this logic
of restoration, an instrumentalization of the past was going to
allow a new genealogy of the “American School” to
be worked out, one protected from any trace of corrupting European
influences. And yet, before one could rehabilitate these American
“heroes,” one still had to “invent” them.
Goodrich and the Invention of Eakins
The art historian
Lloyd Goodrich (1897-1987), who pursued his career at the Whitney
Museum of American Art, was one of Eakins’s principal proponents
from the early 1930s onward. In order to find the antidote to
cosmopolitan blurriness, one had to invent the anti-Sargent--in
other words, a foundational and compensatory figure, someone who
was “American to the Core,” a “solitary oarsman”
who would answer to the imperatives set out by the new cultural
values: taking a solitary path, showing an absence of sophistication,
and engaging in unaffected formal innovation. In some respects,
one would be tempted to conjure up here a nineteenth-century version
of Jackson Pollock. . . .
monograph, Thomas Eakins, His Life and Work, which was
published in 1933 by the Whitney, resuscitated as much as it created
this rustic image of a precursor renowned for “misunderstanding,
persecution, and neglect.” The Eakins myth was thenceforth
a part of the history of art.
construction of Eakins the “pioneer” contrasts point
by point with the society archetypes to which Sargent gave bodily
form and demonstrates to what extent the aesthetic values advanced
by his admirers pertained above all to the realm of moral precepts.
His legendarily sloppy way of dressing (illustration 4) thus became
a metaphor for his pragmatic grounding in everyday experience.
Such anticonformism, which lacked any working-class connotations
(Eakins firmly belonged to Philadelphia’s middle class),
distanced him as much from the Romantic model of inspiration (illustration
5) as it did from either the artistic Bohemianism or the desire
for social self-promotion seen in painted portraits and photographic
images of Sargent’s and Chase’s studios (illustration
6). In order to highlight this contrast with the “superficial”
and casual art of his two fellow painters, Eakins was going to
be erected into the very model of virility, plainspokenness, meticulousness,
objectivity, and obstinate independence.
Such praise for Eakins the man allows one to grasp the scope of
the comparative reversal the image of the American artist had
undergone. Between the late nineteenth century and the interwar
period, Eakins’s breaches of etiquette in a still Victorian
art world were gradually going to be highlighted more and more
as clear signs of artistic accomplishment.
dismissal from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1866 for
indecency--he had had his students pose nude (illustration 7)--was
to become the cornerstone for his retrospective aura as a “rejected”
artist. Even though hostility toward this man who was martyred
for his adherence to the “real” truth owes nothing
to fiction, the use overzealous biographers would make of his
setbacks was systematically aimed at building up a mythical model
of the American artist. In the context of 1930s’ isolationism,
the image of Eakins as self-made man triumphing alone over a series
of trials had the great advantage of setting him in contrast to
the model of the European artist, who was perceived as a mere
inheritor and therefore incapable of originality. So much was
this the case that Goodrich, along with Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney,
strove to minimize and even to deny the artistic impact of this
American artist’s Paris sojourn in the studio of Jean-Léon
The Integrity of Realism
Within this ideological
context, the objectivity of Realism was to be understood as a
guarantee of moral integrity as well as testimony to national
fidelity and loyalty toward the “sacredness of everyday
fact.” The art of Eakins was said to have gotten back in
touch with the Puritan wish to have an “art without style,”
a “style without style.” (Clement Greenberg himself
described Eakins as a “mannerless artist” whose style
was “neutral and transparent.”) Here, the absence
of style becomes a moral condition. For, style without style,
art without seduction, reconnects with the phantasm of an innocence
and purity that would wash art clean of any suspicion of immorality
or uselessness. An art without style is also an art that is immediately
legible and intelligible. Such an alleged immediacy in the language
of Realism harks back to the old dream of a kind of art that would
be adequate to its model: without any gap, beyond all convention,
free from all foreign corruption, and not bound by any prior traditions.
For Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the art of Eakins, cut off from
its French influences, symbolized “American Puritanism and
its intolerance of evil.” The old fascination with the (often
fictive) model of the self-taught Realist artist (George Caleb
Bingham, Winslow Homer) also goes to reveal this obsession with
rediscovering the lost paradise of transparency. Spontaneously
generated, such honest and upstanding Realism was said to spring
up on its own from the American soil--like sansevieria, the potted
plant known for its capacity for resistance that Grant Wood’s
old-fashioned mother bore like an emblem in a 1929 portrait. The
sturdiness of the land engenders authentic American art, that
of the “pioneers.”
The Willful Blindness of Critics
This heroic construction
of the figure of Eakins was based upon a clear misunderstanding
of the reflective and conflictual nature of his art. How could
it have been otherwise when Goodrich and his close associates
reduced Eakins’s contribution to mere thematic and documentary
observations about American life? In Eakins, the themes presented--rowing,
boxing, surgery--and the practices highlighted--anatomy and perspective--were
never but tools employed in the service of dissident pictorial
At the antipodes
of the kind of Realism that would offer but a reassuring report
on how things really are, Eakins converted his experience of reality
into visual drama. Eakins’s art, based as it was upon enigma,
conflict, and violence, was constantly opposed to the notions
of objective evidence and direct observation later highlighted
by Goodrich. The graffiti-covered frame from The Portrait
of Professor Henry A. Rowland (illustration 8) brutally contrasted
two irreconcilable levels of reality: painting and writing, that
“accident affecting the purity of language” (Derrida).
In his rowing scenes (illustration 9), which are lacking in all
spontaneity, the unprecedented emphasis placed upon reflections
in the water and the figure’s dissolution therein is from
the start but a metaphor for the reflective nature of his art.
Pushing Realism to its extremes, Eakins made of reflection an
almost frightening instance of disfigurement. In The Gross
Clinic (illustration 10), which caused a scandal for being
“violent and bloody,” Eakins shows that the violent
nature of the theme--a diaphysectomy performed before an audience
in which Eakins himself can be recognized--is never but that of
the painter toward the viewer. Everything points toward an iconoclastic
relationship to the human body: the illegible body of the patient
seems to have its very integrity attacked, while the scalpel,
red with blood, sets the patient’s mother to cringing as
she covers her face. Michael Fried has now offered an up-to-date
account of this dialectic of repulsion and fascination: a refusal
to look accompanied by a sadistic impulse to frighten. “The
definitive realist painting,” he states, “would be
the one that the viewer literally could not bear to look at.”
public I believe my life is all in my work,” wrote Eakins
in 1894. The ideological mistake made by Goodrich and the advocates
of this identity-based reappropriation of Eakins in the 1920s
and 1930s was to blind themselves, like the patient’s mother
who turns her gaze--doing so to the point of believing that “his
work was all in his life.”.
Translator’s Note: Since the text contains
no footnotes or precise references, in many cases I have had to
translated back into English many words and phrases that had been
translated into French. I thank the author for supplying me with
several original English quotations.
Americans in Paris, 1860-1900. Ed. Kathleen
Adler, Erica E. Hirshler, and H.
Barbara Weinberg. Contributions from David Park
Curry, Rodolphe Rapetti and Christopher
Riopelle. With the assistance of Megan Holloway Fort
and Kathleen Mrachek. London: National Gallery, 2006.
Chassey, Eric de. La Peinture efficace.
Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2001. (On Thomas Craven, see,
in particular, pp. 86-89.)
Foster, Kathleen A. Thomas Eakins Rediscovered.
Charles Bregler’s Thomas Eakins Collections at the Pennsylvania
Academy of Fine Arts. New Haven and London: Yale University
Fried, Michael. Realism, Writing, Disfiguration:
On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane. Chicago and London: The
University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Lucie-Smith, Edward. American Realism.
New York: Abrams, 1994.
Made in USA L’Art américain, 1908-1947.
Ed. Eric de Chassey. Bordeaux, Rennes, and Montpellier: Éditions
Réunion des musées nationaux, 2001.
Paris 1900. Les Artistes américains à l’Exposition
universelle. Exhibition at Paris’s Carnavalet Museum.
Paris: Paris musées, 2001.
Régnier, Gérard. Les Réalismes,
1919-1939. Paris: Éditions Centre Georges Pompidou,
Savinel, Christine. “Le cosmopolitisme
de Whistler, Sargent, Wharton et James: une relation critique.”
In L’art américain. Identités d’une
nation. Paris: Terra Foundation for American Art, Louvre
and École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 2005.
Thomas Eakins. With essays by Kathleen A. Foster
et al. Chronology by Kathleen Brown. Philadelphia,
PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Yale University
Thomas Eakins: Painting and Masculinity/Thomas Eakins. Peinture
et masculinité. Ed. Stéphane Guégan
and Veerle Thielemans. Acts of a colloquium organized
by the Orsay Museum and the Terra Museum of American Art. Chicago
and Giverny: Terra Foundation for the Arts, 2003.
Winslow Homer: Poet of the Sea/Winslow Homer. Poète
des flots. Ed. Sophie Lévy. Chicago
and Giverny: Terra Foundation for the Arts, 2006.
1. Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton,
Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm--The Oxbow, 1836,
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
2. Fritz Hugh Lane, Owl’s Head, Penobscot Bay,
Maine, 1862, Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
3. John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau),
1883-1884, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
4. Entourage of Thomas Eakins, Thomas Eakins at about
Age Thirty Five, 1880, print on albumenized paper, Bryn
Mawr College Library.
5. Anonymous. Thomas Moran in His Studio with Mary,
1876, New York, East Hampton Library.
6. John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, 1902,
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
7. Entourage of Thomas Eakins, Thomas Eakins Carrying
a Nude Woman at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts,
1883-1885, digital inkjet print from the dry gelatin plate
negative, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
8. Thomas Eakins, The Portrait of Professor Henry A. Rowland,
1897, Addison Gallery of Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts.
9. Thomas Eakins, John Biglin in a Single Scull,
1873-1874, New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery.
10. Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic, 1875. (This
canvas was recently put up for sale by Philadelphia’s
Jefferson Medical College. A fund-raising effort has been
launched by various Philadelphia cultural institutions in
order to keep it within the city.)