Picks and Pans Review: Thomas Eakins

updated 05/02/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/02/1983 01:00AM

by Lloyd Goodrich

When Thomas Eakins was a young man, the nude female models in his life class at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts wore masks to hide their identity. That, as this beautifully illustrated two-volume biography makes clear, was only a slight reflection of the painter's lifelong battle with the codes of late-Victorian Philadelphia and the close-mindedness of the American art establishment. Eakins, whose fascination with anatomy was often confused with prurient interest, was eventually forced to resign as the academy's director for insisting that women students draw male nudes. More unfortunately, while he is now acknowledged to be one of America's greatest realist painters, Eakins in his lifetime never achieved the critical and popular acclaim of Winslow Homer or John Singer Sargent. With thorough, readable scholarship, Goodrich, a noted art expert, traces Eakins' career from his early days as a student in Europe to his final years in Philadelphia, where he died at 71 in 1916. Philadelphia provided him with a backdrop for his dazzling urban landscapes, such as Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, where the play of light and sun is rendered exquisitely. And Eakins' portraits of the city's most upstanding citizens, here reproduced handsomely, are powerful and uncompromising. (Eakins' passion for the anatomical truth underneath flesh or social fripperies could not be quenched. During a session with Josephine Kern Dodge, 39, the buxom wife of a successful businessman, Eakins came over and dug his fingers into her chest. "For heaven's sake, Tom," she snapped, "What are you doing?" "Feeling for bones," he replied.) While he lived, Eakins gave only the sparest biographical facts to reporters. "For the public I believe my life is all in my work," he once said. Still, he would surely have admired this richly documented work. It exudes a truthfulness and clarity not unlike an Eakins portrait. (National Gallery of Art/Harvard, $75)

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