Monday, August 25, 2008

The Literal Truth; Eakins Paints The Crucifixion

The Crucifixion 1880

Thomas Eakins didn't have a religious bone in his body, and this painting is the proof. It shows Christ at His death in the most literal way possible; as a thin bony young man nailed upon a rude wooden cross in the glaring dusty sunlight of ancient Judea. He intended this painting to be every bit as provocative, if not more so, than The Gross Clinic, and the critics obliged by being outraged.
Revolting beyond expression is Thomas Eakins' 'Crucified Christ.' a bold piece of realism, in which there is some good painting and much bad color. Mr. Eakins finds in this picture the worst possible excuse for making a study of the nude figure. His Christ is the subject of the dissecting-room-table -- sickening to the last degree.

So wrote the critic for The Independent, apparently ignoring the fact that Christianity itself was on a dissecting table at this time. Barely 17 years earlier, Ernest Renan published his Life of Jesus, beginning the "search for the historical Jesus," the literal truth about that whole moment in history stripped of all of its accumulated tradition, legend, and its sacral and doctrinal interpretation.
Eakins' crucified Jesus is the Christ of archaeology.
Eakins went to great lengths to get the facts about the subject right, not just by spending time doing research in libraries, but by reconstructing as best he could the actual moment. His former pupil, and the model for Christ in this picture, John Laurie Wallace, recalled in a 1938 interview that Eakins built an actual cross. He took it and Wallace (then only 16 years old) to a secluded spot by boat across the Delaware river. Eakins dug a hole and set up the cross. Wallace took off his clothes and posed upon it while Eakins worked. Eakins even made a crown of thorns for Wallace to wear. How literal minded can you get? Thank God he didn't nail the poor kid to the cross.
Artists have used models for centuries. The difference is in how Eakins used his model. Earlier artists used the model as a reference in order to flesh out a concept. Eakins wanted to get rid of the concept and look at the basic physical facts underneath.
Eakins also had art in mind as well as the Bible and Biblical criticism. He was keenly aware that he was making provocative polemics with a central image of Western art. He almost certainly had in mind the great Spanish artists Velazquez and Zurbaran.

Science and scholarship now began to look into the central mysteries of the Christian faith and many secretly worried if that faith could survive the scrutiny. Earlier artists couldn't have cared less about the literal history of these events. What counted for them, and their audiences, was the story and its meaning. Masaccio had no qualms about locating the events described in Acts in the streets of the Oltrarno district of Florence. Robert Campin thought nothing of setting The Annunciation in a 15th century middle class Flemmish parlor. Ours is an age that is no longer comfortable with imagination and metaphor.  We are a much more literal minded people -- about everything -- than our distant ancestors.


James said...

This is my favourite painting of the crucifixion. Now that you've told em something about how it came to be, I love it more. Thanks you!

Anonymous said...

As is usual, I have come to your place out of the blue and a little strong. However, these things that you are writing fascinate me. You may have found another student, I'm not sure. I have an indelicate question to ask about paintings of the crucifixion that I won't ask here. Headed out now to look for an e mail address...

Leonardo Ricardo said...

beautiful face...loveable.

BillyD said...

I'm going to try to print and mount a copy of the for my prayer corner.

Grandmère Mimi said...

So the crucifixion was pretty, then?

This is the first I've seen of this painting. I like it, although I confess that I like the both Velasquez and the Zurbaran better. Eakins surely went to extraordinary lengths to achieve realism.

In Alexandria, LA, (of all places) I once saw an exhibit, "The Heart of Spain", that included rather stunning paintings from well-known museums. There was a whole large oval room of crucifixion paintings. I remember that in only one painting did Jesus have the coloring of a corpse. In all the others, the coloring of the skin was that of a living person or someone who had been dead for only a brief time.

Sometimes you find the most unlikely and wonderful surprises in small towns.

BillyD said...

Grandmère, for a not-pretty but striking crucifixion scene, how about the Isenheim Altarpiece in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon? At least, it used to be it seems to be in France.ünewald_019.jpg