Art of Thomas Eakins


Seven people and a driver sit in a red coach driven by four brown horses. They're positioned on a path in Fairmount Park, surrounded by grass and trees. The lady wears a colorful dress and hat; the men all wear hats, the majority of which are top hats.
Eakins referenced wax sculptures and Eadweard Muybridge’s equine photographic studies in order to accurately depict horses in motion. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The art of Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) is more deeply entwined with the city of Philadelphia than that of any other artist of the nineteenth century. Born in North Philadelphia in 1844, Eakins spent nearly his entire life in the city. He consistently took local residents as his subjects, portraying friends, family, and individuals he admired engaged in professional activities and leisure pursuits. His oil paintings, watercolors, sculptures, and photographs vividly reflected late-nineteenth-century life in Philadelphia and had a lasting impact upon generations of American artists.

A colorful painted portrait of a woman in red and white, from the side. Expressionist-like brushstrokes capture the folds of her clothing and a plume of feathers traveling backward from her hat. The background is a warm brown tone of blurred, implied objects.
The loose brushwork in Carmelita Requeña reveals the influence of Eakins’s teacher, Léon Bonnat, who encouraged his students to emulate the painterly techniques of the Spanish Baroque masters. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Eakins received his first art lessons from his father, Benjamin Eakins (1818–99). A writing master and teacher, Benjamin imparted to his son the precision of fine penmanship and calligraphy. Eakins employed his deft control of the pen in his drawing classes at Central High School, where he learned to create meticulous mechanical and perspective drawings. His growing interest in art led him to enroll at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA, then located on Chestnut Street between Tenth and Eleventh Streets) in 1862. He initially took antique-cast drawing classes—the main course of study for students—before he registered for life classes in the spring of 1863. Seeking greater insight into the structure of the human form, he supplemented his art courses with anatomy lectures and dissections at Jefferson Medical College (later Thomas Jefferson University).

After four years of instruction at PAFA, Eakins pursued further artistic training abroad. From 1866 to 1869, he attended the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. Under the guidance of the leading academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), he gained a strong command of drawing the nude figure. He also learned to sculpt from Augustin-Alexandre Dumont (1801-84), creating small maquettes as aids to painting—a practice he continued throughout his career. Eakins then spent the winter of 1869-70 in Spain, where he became enraptured with the dark colors and bold, gestural brushstrokes of the seventeenth-century paintings of Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) and José de Ribera (1591-1652). Stimulated by his artistic discoveries and emboldened by his academic training, Eakins created his first large-scale oil painting, A Street Scene in Seville (1870).

Early Athletic Scenes

A landscape painting of a river, reflecting a close embankment to the left side and a more distant one on the right. Two bridges run parallel with the horizon line, and the main subject of the painting is Max Schmitt, seating in a single, yellow scull, turned to his right to look at the viewer. Another sculler is rowing away toward the bridges and horizon behind him.
Eakins paid homage to his childhood friend, a champion oarsman, in his painting Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (The Champion Single Sculls). (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Eakins returned to Philadelphia in July 1870. He set up his studio at his childhood home at 1729 Mount Vernon Street, where he lived for the rest of his life. He painted relatives and friends, predominantly women, engaged in everyday activities in domestic interiors. He was also inspired by the outdoor sports he had enjoyed since youth: rowing, fishing, hunting, and sailing. Eakins embarked upon a series of oil paintings and watercolors of male athletes at identifiable locations in the Philadelphia region. As such scholars as Elizabeth Johns and Martin A. Berger have argued, Eakins’s sporting pictures reflected his community’s growing interest in modern leisure and its changing constructions of masculinity. After the Civil War, a rise in economic prosperity and an increasing preoccupation with physical health led Americans to pursue recreational activities outdoors. Although both sexes participated in athletics, physical fitness became associated with manhood; a strong body demonstrated a strong mind. Sculling was a particularly popular sport among middle-class men in Philadelphia, one that required rigorous discipline.

An avid rower since the 1860s, Eakins created approximately fourteen sculling works. The first and best known of these is Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (The Champion Single Sculls) of 1871. Eakins portrayed his longtime friend Max Schmitt (1843-1900) in a boat on the Schuylkill River, which was located near the artist’s home. As with all of his major works of art, Eakins created the painting through a laborious artistic process, which, as scholar Michael Leja has argued, involved the combination and reconciliation of multiple systems of knowledge: linear perspective, anatomical research, and mathematical calculation. Eakins’s methodically crafted composition celebrated a popular Philadelphia activity and paid tribute to the mental and physical dexterities of his friend, a champion oarsman.

Science and Anatomy

In April 1875, Eakins created what would become known as his masterpiece, The Gross Clinic. The monumental painting features Dr. Samuel D. Gross, a pioneering Philadelphia surgeon with whom Eakins had become acquainted at Jefferson Medical College. Gross is shown performing a bone operation with the help of five doctors in Jefferson Medical College’s surgical amphitheater. Through his dignified efforts to the save the limb of an ailing patient, Gross appears as both a healer and a teacher—the hero of a modern history painting. Eakins specifically created The Gross Clinic for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The art committee rejected the painting, however, offended by its bloody subject matter. Eakins displayed it in the exhibition’s medical section, where it drew attention to Philadelphia’s long history as an advanced medical center.

Eakins notoriously emphasized the study of the nude during his first year of teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Eakins notoriously emphasized the study of the nude during his tenure at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Eakins began working at PAFA the same year as the Centennial Exhibition. Informing his teaching with his interest in science and anatomy, he shifted PAFA’s emphasis from the study of plaster casts to the study of the nude. He insisted on the use of live models (both human and animal) in drawing and painting classes and added dissection courses to the curriculum. He also gave lectures on anatomy and invited surgeons to speak. Eakins felt that only by gaining a thorough understanding of skeletal and muscular structure could students adequately represent the human form. He exerted such a strong impact upon the institution that within only six years, he was appointed director.

Eakins’s teaching practices were deeply controversial, however. His insistence on the study of the nude in mixed-sex classes and his frequent use of pupils as models led to repeated conflicts with faculty, students, parents, and PAFA’s board. Objection to his teaching methods escalated after an incident in January 1886 in which, during an anatomy lecture on the pelvis, Eakins infamously removed the loincloth from a male model in front of female students. Exasperated by what was perceived to be consistently inappropriate and insubordinate behavior, the board forced Eakins to resign.

Despite his tarnished reputation, Eakins continued teaching after he left PAFA. He ran classes at the short-lived Art Students’ League of Philadelphia (1429 Market Street), an artists’ cooperative formed by loyal male students who seceded from PAFA after his resignation. He also lectured occasionally at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, the National Academy of Design in New York, and Cooper Union in New York, always insisting upon the importance of the study of the nude.


In addition to oil painting, watercolor, and sculpture, Eakins experimented with photography in the 1880s and 1890s. Using a wooden view camera and glass plate negatives, he produced platinum prints of great tonal richness. The majority of his photographs are figure studies and portraits of students, family, and friends; most were created as independent works of art. In the few instances in which Eakins utilized his pictures as preparatory aids to painting, he rarely copied them directly. More typically, he took elements from a variety of photographs and transformed them in the final work.

a black and white time-lapse image of a nude male pole-vaulting. It captures the figure at timed intervals, resulting in about eight apparent semi-transparent overlapping figures going through the singular motion of pole-vaulting.
In the mid-1880s, Eakins used the photographic technique of Étienne-Jules Marey to study how the human body moved through space. (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)

In the 1880s, Eakins produced a series of photographs that engaged with an Arcadian theme. He took pictures of PAFA students posing in classical drapery and in the nude, and he made several excursions with his pupils to photograph them in idyllic outdoor settings. The photographs taken on a trip to Dove Lake near Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, led to Eakins’s painting The Swimming Hole (1885). Relying upon his photographs as general references, he depicted a scene of nude young men on a rocky outcrop. Scholars such as Berger, Lloyd Goodrich, and William Innes Homer have described the painting and its related images as homosocial, or explorations of male companionship. Others, such as Whitney Davis, Jennifer Doyle, and Michael Fried, have argued that the works are homoerotic because of their emphasis on the male physique. Regardless of their reading, Swimming Hole and its related photographs reflect Eakins’s enduring interest in the human body.

Eakins also used photography to study human and animal locomotion. In 1884, he was part of a committee at the University of Pennsylvania that oversaw the work of Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), who had gained international renown in the 1870s for his equine photographs. Seeking to discover whether horses lifted all four hooves off the ground when galloping, Muybridge set up a series of cameras alongside a track and took sequential shots of the animals’ movements. Eakins relied upon Muybridge’s pioneering photographs in his representation of horses pulling a coach in The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand (A May Morning in the Park) (1879-80). Eakins also carried out his own photographic studies of motion as part of his ongoing quest to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the human body. He photographed men walking, running, jumping, and pole-vaulting in the nude.

Late Paintings

Eakins briefly returned to sporting subjects in 1898 and 1899 after concentrating exclusively on portraiture for a decade. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Eakins briefly returned to sporting subjects in 1898 and 1899 after concentrating exclusively on portraiture for a decade. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Eakins briefly returned to athletic subjects in 1898 and 1899, producing a small number of boxing and wrestling paintings. As with his earlier rowing, hunting, and sailing scenes, the inspiration for these works arose from his enthusiasm for the sports. He attended matches at the Philadelphia Arena (then at Broad Street and Cherry Street, diagonally across from PAFA) and used professional fighters as his models.

Except for these few sporting pictures, Eakins devoted the remainder of his career to portraiture. Since he rarely received commissions, most of his sitters were family, friends, and professionals he admired. He portrayed creative and intellectual individuals, such as musicians, scientists, doctors, teachers, poets, and artists. Rather than idealizing his sitters’ appearances, he painstakingly represented their facial features, aging skin, and bone structures. Depicted in isolated settings with closed mouths, searching eyes, and tilted heads, his subjects appear as though they are in deep introspection. The most well known of these psychologically penetrating portraits is The Thinker (1900), which features Eakins’s brother-in-law, Louis N. Kenton.


A self-portrait painting of Thomas Eakins leaning backward at an angle. He wears a black vest, suit jacket, and bow tie. He has salt-and-pepper grey hair, beard and mustache. The background is splotchy, somewhat abstract mixture of brown and dark grey tones.
Eakins created this self-portrait near the end of his career to fulfill a requirement for associate membership of the National Academy. (National Academy Museum via Wikimedia Commons)

Although Eakins sold fewer than thirty paintings and only had one solo exhibition in his lifetime, having lost prestige when he left PAFA, he exerted an incredible influence upon his students, many of whom became renowned artists. Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) gained an international reputation for his religious paintings. His studio assistant and close friend Samuel Murray (1869-1941) developed a thriving career as a figurative sculptor. Eakins also taught the realist painter Thomas Anshutz (1851-1912), who became the head instructor at PAFA in 1909. Dedicated to the study of anatomy and perspective, Anshutz passed down Eakins’s techniques and devotion to the human figure to those who became the leaders of the next generation. He most notably taught the forerunners of the Ashcan School: Robert Henri (1865-1929), John Sloan (1871-1951), George Luks (1867-1933), Everett Shinn (1876-1953), and William Glackens (1870-1938). Eakins’s teaching methods and subject matter served as a model for students in the Philadelphia region long after he left PAFA.

It was not until after Eakins’s death that scholars and critics began to recognize his role in the history of American art. Goodrich’s 1933 biographical study was instrumental in drawing attention to Eakins’s unwavering, almost scientific devotion to the representation of the human body. By mid-century, Eakins had not only become a source of pride for Philadelphia but also a celebrated figure in the canon of American art history, widely praised for his meticulous working methods, portrayal of everyday life, and influential, though controversial, teaching strategies. Considered one of the greatest American artists, he is represented in the collections of major museums across the country.

Michelle Donnelly is a Curatorial Fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She earned her M.A. in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania in 2014 and worked as a Curatorial Assistant at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 2013 to 2014. (Author information current at time of publication)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


Carmelita Requeña

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Eakins executed this bust-length portrait during his winter in Seville, Spain. Seeking to put his lessons from the École des Beaux Arts to practice, he challenged himself to paint his model, a seven-year-old street performer, outdoors in strong sunlight. The loose brushwork reveals the influence of his teacher, Léon Bonnat, who encouraged his students to emulate the painterly techniques of the Spanish Baroque masters.

This work was likely a preliminary study for Eakins’s first large-scale painting, A Street Scene in Seville (1870), which featured Requeña and her siblings performing in front of a stucco wall.

Carmelita Requeña, 1869. Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (The Champion Single Sculls)

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Eakins paid homage to his childhood friend Max Schmitt, a champion oarsman, by representing him performing the sport at which he excelled. Schmitt appears in the center of the composition in a boat on the Schuylkill River on a clear autumn day. He pauses from his activity to look over his shoulder at the viewer. Eakins, also a proficient sculler, included himself vigorously rowing in the middle distance.

Although the scene appears casually observed, Eakins created it through a meticulous artistic process that involved plein air oil sketches, detailed drawings of the Girard Avenue Bridge and Connecting Bridge (visible in the background), compositional studies, and figurative studies. He also plotted every element of the scene onto a perspectival grid to determine their proportions with mathematical precision.

Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (The Champion Single Sculls), 1871. Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Eakins created this painting during his first year of teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he notoriously emphasized the study of the nude. He depicted William Rush (1756-1833) the founder of the school, carving his famous sculpture for the city’s first waterworks, The Water Nymph and Bittern (1809), directly from a nude model. Rush appears to the left in shadow, while the model prominently stands in the center of the composition, bathed in light. Although it is highly unlikely that Rush had worked from a nude model, Eakins imagined the celebrated artist doing so to justify his own artistic practices. The painting is both a tribute to a renowned Philadelphia sculptor and a visual manifesto of Eakins’s approaches to art-making.

William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River, 1876-77. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia.

The Swimming Hole

Amon Carter Museum of American Art

In one of Eakins’s few nude paintings, he portrayed five young men skinny-dipping in a bucolic setting. The figures stand, lie, turn, and jump in a rhythmic, balanced arrangement in and out of the water. Their unabashed nudity and elegant poses evoke ancient Greek ideals of physical beauty and male camaraderie. As in The Gross Clinic (1875) and Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (1871), Eakins included a portrait of himself in the scene. He appears at the lower right paddling in the water along with his dog, Harry.

The Swimming Hole, 1885. Oil on canvas. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.

Male Figures at the Site of The Swimming Hole

J. Paul Getty Museum

Eakins based his 1885 painting The Swimming Hole on a series of photographs he took on an excursion to Dove Lake outside of Philadelphia with his students. While he did not use this image as a direct study for the painting, he referenced it while composing the large-scale work. A group of naked males appear on the rock foundation of a mill ruin in similar poses as in the final painting. Eakins transformed the composition, however, into a more classically ordered arrangement with a standing figure forming the apex of a pyramid.

Male Figures at the Site of The Swimming Hole, 1884. Albumen silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Motion Study, George Reynolds, nude, pole-vaulting to right

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

In the mid-1880s, Eakins used photography to study how the human body moved through space. While he admired the stop-action photographs of Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), he adopted the technique of Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904), who used a single camera with a spinning disk pierced with an opening in front of the lens. This apparatus enabled Eakins to capture multiple exposures on the same plate, rather than recording movement through sequences of separate frames.

This Motion Study traces George Reynolds’s dynamic ascent into the air by a vaulting pole to his landing on the ground. The superimposition of his body in different positions allowed Eakins to scrutinize the movements of his limbs and muscles.

Motion Study, George Reynolds, nude, pole-vaulting to right, 1885. Dry-plate negative. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand (A May Morning in the Park)

Philadelphia Museum of Art

This work features Fairman Rogers (1833-1900), a civil engineer and one of the first Philadelphians to own a four-in-hand coach, driving through Fairmount Park with his family. To accurately depict the horses in motion, Eakins not only created wax sculptures of the animals, but he also relied upon Eadweard Muybridge’s groundbreaking equine photographs, which precisely captured the positions of horses’ limbs while trotting. Instead of painting the individual spokes of the moving wheels, however, Eakins represented them as blurred marks as the human eye would have seen them.

The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand (A May Morning in the Park), 1879-80. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia.

Between Rounds

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Eakins briefly returned to sporting subjects in 1898 and 1899 after concentrating exclusively on portraiture for a decade. Here, he portrayed the professional boxer “Turkey Point” Billy Smith taking a moment of rest during a match at the Philadelphia Arena. A poster at the upper left announces a fight for April 22, 1898, between Smith and Tim Callahan, another Philadelphia boxer. According to Eakins’s wife, Susan, every figure in the scene posed for the artist. The timekeeper sitting in the foreground is his friend Clarence Cranmer, a sportswriter, and the man holding the towel is Billy McCarney, the manager of heavyweight champion Max Schmeling.

Between Rounds, 1898-99. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia.

The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton,

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Louis N. Kenton (1865-1947) was briefly married to Elizabeth Macdowell (1858-1953), the sister of Eakins’s wife, Susan (1851-1938). Although little is known of Kenton, his contemplative pose in this life-size painting seems to indicate he was a man of scholarly pursuits. The full-length format, undefined background, and limited color palette recall Diego Velázquez’s portraits of King Philip IV of Spain, which Eakins greatly admired.

The title most commonly associated with this painting, The Thinker, was inscribed on the stretcher by Susan Eakins. It likely references Rodin’s iconic sculpture of the same name (1879-89) of a man in introspection. Because “1900” is inscribed on the floor, scholars have argued that the figure embodies the complexities of modern man at the turn of the century.

The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton, 1900. Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Self-Portrait (1902)

National Academy Museum

Eakins created this self-portrait near the end of his career to fulfill a requirement for associate membership of the National Academy. As with the sitters of his late portraits, he depicted himself with astute attention to his physical features. He carefully articulated the imperfections and wrinkles of his aged face, as well as the individual whiskers in his graying beard. Looking directly at the viewer with a hard gaze and downturned mouth, he appears bitter and exhausted from the frustrations of his career.

Nine days after this work arrived at the National Academy, Eakins was finally elected a full member. Some scholars have argued that Eakins’s accusatory gaze is directed at the National Academy for taking so long to welcome him into the institution.

Self-Portrait, 1902. Oil on canvas. National Academy, New York, via Wikimedia Commons

Related Topics


Time Periods



Related Reading

Berger, Martin A. Man Made: Thomas Eakins and the Construction of Gilded Age Manhood. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2000.

Domit, Moussa M. The Sculpture of Thomas Eakins. Washington, D.C.: The Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1969.

Foster, Kathleen A. and Mark S. Tucker, eds. An Eakins Masterpiece Restored: Seeing The Gross Clinic Anew. New Haven: Yale University Press, in association with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2012.

Goodrich, Lloyd. Thomas Eakins. New York: Praeger Publications, in association with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1970.

Hendricks, Gordon. The Photographs of Thomas Eakins. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1972.

Homer, William Innes. Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art. New York: Abbeville Press, 1992.

Johns, Elizabeth. Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Leja, Michael. “Eakins’s Reality Effects.” In Looking Askance: Skepticism and American Art from Eakins to Duchamp. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2004.

Sewell, Darrel. Thomas Eakins: Artist of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1982.

Werbel, Amy. Thomas Eakins: Art, Medicine, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

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