Sunday, August 14, 2011

Thomas Eakins & Winslow Homer

Celebrated painters in the tradition of American realism, Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins are both revered today for their insightful portrayals of Americans at work and play. Eakins filled his canvases with figures that included rowers, wrestlers, baseball players or boxers, while Homer found his subjects in children at play, men hunting, fishing and sailing. The two shared a dedication to realism, but had very different reputations in their own time. Homer was acclaimed as a leading artist in the United States, and enjoyed a good income from his painting alone. Eakins, a Philadelphia painter and art professor, was given only a single one-man show in his whole career and sold less than thirty paintings during his lifetime.

Possibly the most intellectual artist America has produced, Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), was fascinated by the human form and sought to capture it in action and in its purest form. His work was crucial in observing the relationship between painting and photography in the nineteenth century. Controversy shaped much of his career as a teacher and as an artist. He insisted on teaching men and women in the same manner, used nude male models in female classes and vice versa, and was once even accused of abusing female students. The painter’s troubles in this regard may have been caused by a combination of factors. Considering the conventions of the time, there was something clearly bohemian about Eakins and his circle and an inclination toward unorthodox or provocative behavior. The intensity and authority of his teaching style also added fuel to the controversy that haunted Eakins.

The Swimming Hole (1885) is a classic of American painting and shows a scene of healthy, manly, outdoor activity—a group of young fellows stripped down for a swim. It is based on swimming excursions that were enjoyed by the artist and his students—Eakins is the figure in the water at bottom right. According to Eakin’s biographer William McFeely, the image of the artist and five of his male students swimming in the nude embodies a Thoreau-like conviction by Eakins that happiness can be found in freedom from society’s constraints, in living at one with nature. This work hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and has been admired by countless art lovers. Beside all the critical praise the painting has received, there is a problem; the young men do not appear to be doing anything, and are more like figures maintaining positions imposed on them. They look like models in studio poses. Contrary to the artist’s convictions, one could say there is no freedom or sense of being ‘at one with nature’ in this scene.

When Eakins began painting watercolors for exhibition, he took up sporting scenes. The watercolor above is one done in 1873 on off-white wove paper titled, John Biglin in a Scull. As he did in other paintings of athletes, the artist has focused on the male figure in action.

Considered one of the outstanding painters in nineteenth century America and a great figure in American art, Winslow Homer (1836-1910) began his career as a commercial printmaker, first in Boston and then in New York, where he settled in his early twenties. Often a loner, Homer enjoyed isolation and for much of his life was inspired by privacy and silence to do his finest work. Though he had begun working in oil around 1866, he continued to work extensively in watercolor, creating a body of work that primarily chronicled his working vacations. By 1890 Homer began concentrating on the beauty, the force, and drama of the sea. There is movement in his seascapes that captures the feel of the ocean’s mass, the roil and crash of water. These among all his work were the most admired by his contemporaries and remain among his most famous works today.

The Gulf Stream (1889) was based on studies made during Homer’s two trips to the Bahamas. The painting hangs in the Metropolitan Museum, where a curator described it as ‘one of the most typical and central creations of American art.’ In a dynamic composition Homer shows a half-naked black man defiantly spread out on the deck of a small boat, its mast broken, tossed by the sea, threatened by a water spout and surrounded by sharks. The artist had difficulty selling this painting, and speculation suggests it might have been because of what was viewed as its unpleasant or frightening subject matter.

Material collected as an artist-correspondent during the Civil War provided the subjects for Homer’s first oil paintings. This work established his reputation.

The painting above, Prisoners from the Front (1866) represents an actual scene from the war in which a Union officer, Brigadier General Francis Channing Barlow, captured several Confederate soldiers. In the background is the battlefield at Petersburg, Virginia.


  1. This article is all about Eakins; you should add some more information/paintings by Homer...:)

    1. Half of the article is about Homer! Did you even read it?

  2. Any comments on the seemingly unfinished black soldier behind the group of prisoners in Homer's Prisoners from the Front 1866?


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America