Dark study of Thomas Eakins

Special to The Times

The scion of one of this country’s most famous families has taken a scalpel to an American art icon. And his fellow scholars are not amused.

In “Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist,” Henry Adams, a direct descendant of our second president, describes the acclaimed 19th century portraitist Thomas Eakins as an “exhibitionist-voyeur” who was hostile toward women, confused about gender and sexuality, inclined to incest and a likely victim of childhood sexual abuse. He was also, in Adams’ view, a depressed fellow who tried to make people unfortunate enough to sit for a portrait “appear tired, worried, unhappy, distressed, worn down, or even mentally unbalanced.”

Adams, 56, professor of American art at Case Western Reserve University and curator of American art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, is a well-respected art historian with degrees from Harvard and Yale and, according to his book blurb, “more than 200" publication credits. He bases his unorthodox conclusions on familiar evidence -- both Eakins’ paintings and papers, and images from the Bregler Collection, made available to scholars in the mid-1980s.

Other art historians, notably Kathleen Foster, have mined this biographical trove, with its whiffs of scandal, provocative nude photographs and staunch letters of defense from Eakins’ wife, Susan. But, says Foster, curator of American art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Henry just decided to press to one side -- to line evidence up for his dark reading to the exclusion of the other possibilities.”

Squirreled away by an Eakins student, Charles Bregler, the collection reveals a man who enjoyed posing himself and others in the buff; who was accused of molesting his niece, who eventually shot herself; and whose family was rent by intense feuding.


The papers also suggest that Eakins’ 1886 firing from his teaching post at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia was precipitated by a string of complaints -- not just a single incident in which Eakins removed a loincloth from a male model in front of female students.

Foster says that Eakins (1844-1916) “clearly was an exhibitionist” and “enjoyed provoking people.” But in the case of the alleged molestation and other accusations, she says, “I just don’t think we can tell who’s really got the corner on truth.”

In “Eakins Revealed,” Adams has frequent recourse to both Freudian terminology and biological psychiatry, throwing around Oedipal complexes and castration fears on one page and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (the class of drugs that includes Prozac) on the next.

The response of other Eakins experts has been skeptical. “You’d be hard-pressed to come up with someone who’s really on the side of Adams or in his camp,” says Cheryl Leibold, an archivist at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where the Bregler Collection is housed. “He’s really so extremist. What he’s done is really take Freudian psychology and try to apply it to the documents that survive. In actual fact, nobody buys into Freudian psychology anymore.”

Michael J. Lewis, professor of art history at Williams College in Massachusetts and the only critic reached for this article who says he has read the Adams book in its entirety, says he finds it both reductive and confusing. “Instead of weighing the evidence,” says Lewis, author of “Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind,” “he seems to very quickly have decided that Eakins was one sick puppy, and proceeded to diagnose six or eight maladies that are self-contradictory. We find out that Eakins was perhaps gay but also a compulsive seducer of women, an exhibitionist, a voyeur, a manic-depressive, he had a serotonin imbalance, he drank too much milk. In every instance, he [Adams] looked for the worst-case scenario.”

Elizabeth Johns, professor emerita of art history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life” (1983), says she is “surprised and sorry that Adams took this tack -- focusing exclusively on Eakins’ putative sexual identities and behavior -- because much of Adams’ earlier work has been very fine art history.”

Johns is one of the targets of Adams’ book, which ranks her among those scholars engaged in “maintaining a hard-line defense of Eakins’ motives.” Ironically, a paperback edition of Johns’ 1983 book bears the following blurb from a younger Adams: “For many decades no book so thoughtfully considered, so beautifully crafted, and so accurate and illuminating in its conclusions has been written in the American field.”

Perhaps to counter the avalanche of criticism, Adams’ publisher, Oxford University Press, has released raves about the book from two contemporary American realist painters with strong ties to the Philadelphia region. Andrew Wyeth calls “Eakins Revealed” “the most extraordinary biography I have ever read on an artist.” Reading it, he says, “was like following Eakins’ footprints in the snow as he walked down a back street in Philadelphia.”

His son, Jamie Wyeth, expresses similar sentiments. “At last a biography that brings fully to life the creator of American art’s most astonishing works,” he says. “Until this point the Thomas Eakins iconography has been staid and housebroken. Henry Adams’ book breaks from that tradition brilliantly.”

Adams declined to comment for this article. But in his book and the written text of a recent talk at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he says that he began studying the Bregler Collection with an eye to writing an appreciative article about Eakins for Smithsonian magazine.

“Lying behind my effort was a certain sense of guilt,” the text of the speech says. “For some reason, I had never connected to Eakins or his paintings with the passionate, unreserved enthusiasm that is expected from people in the American field. While I admired them, something about them also made me uneasy.... If I got to know Eakins better, so I thought, I would learn to empathize with him, and come to admire his artistic and moral framework. I would be able to jump on the Eakins bandwagon.”

The reverse appears to have occurred, with Adams using his dark readings of the paintings to buttress support for his portrait of a deeply troubled man. He calls “The Gross Clinic” (1875), considered one of Eakins’ masterpieces, “horrifying,” a sentiment shared by the artist’s contemporaries. Leaning on a 1987 essay by art historian Michael Fried, Adams describes the scalpel-wielding Dr. Gross as both “a reassuring father figure” and “an agent of castration” and says the painting contains “a strong emphasis on voyeurism.” (Fried declined to comment on Adams’ book, saying he had read only excerpts.)

Previous critics have viewed “The Swimming Hole” (ca. 1983-85), with its depiction of six male nudes (Eakins’ students and the master himself), as a clear expression of homoeroticism. But Adams’ complicated argument is that while the painting’s “multiplication of naked young men suggests a form of erotic emphasis,” it also “imposes sexual restraint, even prudery.”

Adams also emphasizes “the unflattering qualities of Eakins’ portraits,” which he says have typically been seen as evidence of profundity. In fact, says Adams, “he was interested in tiring his sitters so that he could record their fatigue and emotional distress.” He was particularly unpleasant to women, whom he sometimes “pressured ... to pose in the nude” or even “poked and fingered,” Adams writes.

The biographer says Eakins’ preoccupation with distress may have stemmed from his mother’s alleged manic-depressive illness (her death certificate recorded that she died of “exhaustion” following “mania”). Indulging in the sort of speculation that fuels his critics, Adams hypothesizes that “it is likely that Eakins’ mother sometimes engaged in behavior that was disturbingly sexual, such as undressing, confiding intimate sexual matters, or even attempting to seduce him.”

Lewis says that Adams’ initial instinct -- to question past idealization of Eakins -- made sense. “I read the first three pages with a kind of excited urgency because the book begins in a really gripping way,” Lewis says. “He’s exactly right: There is a kind of implicit, submerged undercurrent in all of Eakins’ work, a kind of tantalizing mystery.”

Eakins “had a very intense sexual drive which caused him some torment and spilled over into his interactions with others” and “adds a kind of charge to his art,” Lewis says. But Adams embraces “the myth that sexual identity is the primal identity of a person” and “gives us a collection of symptoms,” Lewis says. “I didn’t get the sense that we’d come closer to this melancholy, deeply feeling and easily wounded man.”

Apparently anticipating his critics, Adams’ speech to the academy audience says that “my book is not simply a ‘pathography,’ an attempt to tear down Eakins, an expose of human frailty.” Instead, he says, “it is the story of suffering transmuted into art; and it demonstrates how hard-won were Eakins’ achievements.”