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The Paris Letters of Thomas Eakins edited by William Innes Homer

Guillaume Tanguy
p. 262-264
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The Paris Letters of Thomas Eakins, edited by William Innes Homer, Princeton, Princeton UP, 2009. 384 p. ISBN 978-0-691-13808-4

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1Thomas Eakins is regarded nowadays as one of the greatest painters of his time. The Paris Letters of Thomas Eakins, edited by William Innes Homer, brings together for the first time the entire correspondence written by the artist from 1866 to 1870. The book also includes the letters he penned during his five-month stay in Spain, as well as his “Spanish Notebook”, and a summary of his letters and theories after 1870.

2Each letter is preceded by a short abstract and followed by footnotes which situate Eakins in his cultural context and provide enlightening comments on his personality. As for the book’s general introduction, it gives a succinct overview of the artist’s career and family background. One small point, however, might have been clarified: in Man Made: Thomas Eakins and the Construction of Gilded Age Manhood the author, Martin A. Berger, makes the case that Eakins had objected to going abroad, but that his “dominant” father insisted that he went (Berger 77). Homer’s introduction might have been more specific on that point in order to clarify the frame of mind in which Eakins went to Paris. For if, as is suggested by a comment made by a friend of Eakins’s father’s, the young man “was opposed to going abroad before having seen thoroughly his native country” (quoted in Berger 139), the homesickness expressed in his early letters from Paris is perfectly understandable, and the attachment to his native country can also explain why throughout his career Eakins was to focus almost exclusively on American subjects.

3The appeal of Homer’s book also comes from its illustrations. The drawings which the artist included in his letters are beautifully reproduced and reveal a rich personality: the drawing of Eakins’s informal cloth hat, which one of his friends compared to “a chamber pot”, suggests his sense of humour and his informality (an important characteristic of his paintings); the sketch of a “French velocipede” bespeaks the keen observer of Continental customs; the remarkable drawings of his bedroom furniture, included in a letter to his mother, reveal his filial affection and technical skill. Equally interesting are the photographic portraits of the artist as a young man. The appearance of Eakins in his early thirties can be seen as a manifesto of his artistic creed: the informality of his physical appearance, bordering on ugliness, stresses the rejection of conventionality (“I hate affectation”, he wrote in May 1868). By contrast, the photograph emphasizes the introspective intensity of the young man’s gaze. This photograph seems to contain the germ of the numerous portraits painted by Eakins throughout his career, which focus on the act of thinking itself, on scientists and thinkers.

4The insistence on “paint[ing] [things] as I see them” foreshadows some of the setbacks Eakins was to meet with in the course of his career. Some of his portraits, such as the famous The Gross Clinic, shocked the public, who was not prepared for such uncompromising, almost primitive realism. Similarly, Eakins’s emphasis on the study of anatomy was to cause his resignation from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. By giving us access to the entire correspondence, the book also enables us to trace Eakins’s growing doubts as to his ability to succeed as a painter in America. After his return to Philadelphia, he was frustrated about not being able to sell his work successfully. As William Homer writes: “At this point, a note of insecurity crept into the letters, and we sense that his faith in his ability to earn a living by painting, voiced in Paris, was shaken.”

5Eakins’s correspondence also helps to understand the central importance of science in the painter’s career. When describing his first visit to the Louvre, he hardly mentions the paintings and sculptures. Later on, in his account of the Exposition Universelle of 1867, he focuses on machines (sewing machines, soda water fountains) rather than on art. In yet another letter, his patriotic feelings are aroused—understandably—less by American art than by America’s technical prowess: “America beats the world in machinery”. It is also the scientist in him who speaks when he advises, as Homer remarks, “his sister Fanny to persevere in her study of the piano, [drawing] complex analogies between mathematics and music”. He even included a drawing of an asymptote to convince her that she could, in his words, “approach perfection”. Similarly, at the end of his Spanish Notebook, he tries to formulate artistic rules as if he was dealing with a mathematical problem: “Proposition: Too strong a white light creates a silver-white effect in the colors of a picture”, and he compares his difficulties to those of “Mathematicians [who] were unable to measure the circle except by starting with the square”.

6But it would wrong to conclude that Eakins was a scientist who got sidetracked into an artistic career. He should be viewed, in Homer’s words, as an “artist-scientist”. His artistic sensibility appears for example in a letter to his sister Fanny, dated April 1869, which reveals his admiration for his teacher, Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose paintings have the power to “make you see” a historical figure, for “he knows all men” and he “makes people as they were”. A viewer looking at Gérôme’s portrait of Dante “can almost cry”.

7Eakins’s attempt to reconcile scientific and artistic preoccupations appears in a letter to his father where an extended sailing metaphor is used to convey his aesthetic theory. Artistic freedom is suggested through the emphasis on creation and subjectivity, while the need for scientific rigour is expressed by the emphasis on tools, knowledge and technical skill: “[A]n artist is a creator. [The big artist] does not sit down monkey like, & copy a coal scuttle or an ugly old woman like some Dutch painters have done, . . . but he keeps a sharp eye on Nature & steals her tools. He learns what she does with light, the big tool & then color, then form, and appropriates them to his own use. Then he’s got a canoe of his own smaller than Nature’s but big enough for every purpose. . . . With this canoe he can sail parallel to Nature’s sailing. He will soon be sailing only where he wants to, selecting nice little coves and shady shores or storms to his own liking, but if he ever thinks he can sail another fashion from Nature or make a better shaped boat he’ll capsize. [The big artist] sails his [boat] as near as he knows that nature would have sailed her boat. . . .”

8The Paris Letters of Thomas Eakins is an invaluable document for understanding both the development of one of America’s most acclaimed realist painters and the significance of his work. In particular, it helps to qualify the notion of America’s artistic backwardness encapsulated by the statement made by Henry James in 1887: “It sounds like a paradox, but it is a very simple truth, that when to-day we look for “American art” we find it mainly in Paris. When we find it out of Paris, we at least find a great deal of Paris in it.” By focusing on domestic subjects and by resolving “never to paint in the manner of [his] master”, as he famously declared in his Spanish Notebook, he made it clear that the New World could produce great art. Though able to assimilate European techniques, Eakins was determined to come into his own as an American artist.

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Guillaume Tanguy, « The Paris Letters of Thomas Eakins edited by William Innes Homer », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 74 Automne | 2011, 262-264.

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Guillaume Tanguy, « The Paris Letters of Thomas Eakins edited by William Innes Homer », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 74 Automne | 2011, mis en ligne le 05 décembre 2014, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL :

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Guillaume Tanguy

Université Montpellier III.

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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