Monday, August 25, 2008

"The Still Sad Music of Humanity"; Two Portraits by Eakins

Morgan Douglass Hall, circa 1889

Susan Hannah MacDowell, Eakins' Wife, 1899

Eakins' primary subject was human beings.  For all the radical transformations of technology and science that made the modern world, Eakins remained keenly aware that they were all the creations of frail mortals, and that they had an impact on the lives of those same mortals.

The painting at the top is of one of Eakin's students at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art.  Eakins made this painting as a demonstration to his class, probably in a couple of 2 to 3 hour sessions.  Hall either was chosen or volunteered to model, a practice that is still common in art schools.  When the painting was finished, Eakins gave it to Hall.  Hall was definitely not one of Eakins' successes.  He died an untimely death in drink and dissolution.  His family inherited the painting, and not liking it, kept it hidden away for decades in a closet where it was rediscovered by accident.
Scholars now widely agree that Eakins had a strong and deeply repressed streak of homosexuality.  I used to be skeptical of that claim, but it was this painting, and not The Swimming Hole or all the photos of his nude students, that finally convinced me.  Eakins was clearly attracted to this young man (though a similar sensuality can be found in some of his portraits of young women, especially Maud Cook).   There is more ardent desire in that top button straining to hold that shirt closed than in most of his nudes.   Eakins managed as well to see something of the pride and frustration of his mediocre student in that vacant art-student-as-model stare.

Susan Hannah MacDowell also was one of Eakins' students, and unlike Hall, one of his more gifted and promising students.  She married her teacher, and remained Eakins wife until his death.  Sadly, she followed the Victorian custom of giving up her career to be a wife to her husband.  As a result, we have a few pictures by her and must wonder what might have been. 
Being married to Thomas Eakins (or any artist) was no Sunday picnic, and Eakins did not make things easy.  He could be selfish, demanding, arrogant, and self-destructively stubborn.  Those faults came with the courage and enterprise that she once found so attractive in him.  What's worse, Eakins was not always a faithful husband, and she knew it.
Eakins made this very unsettling and moving portrait after many years of marriage.  We see in her large unguarded eyes staring at us out of the gloom her sad frustration and his remorse.  Like the portrait of Hall, it is a small seemingly casual portrait made in probably 2 short sessions.  And yet, it is one of the most dramatic portraits of the 19th century.  Susan Hannah MacDowell shared the lonely exile of Eakins' old age.
A past director of the Hirshorn Museum in Washington DC where this painting is housed once said that if the museum caught on fire, this would be the one painting he would brave the flames to save.

The alienation of modern life may be a cliche, but it's also true.  In a world that grows ever more out of scale and changes so completely so fast that generations of the same family are alienated from each other, the individual is thrown back upon herself.  And yet, as Eakins so poetically reminds us, that world is made and inhabited by very frail mortals.  Eakins had the grace and humility to include himself among them. 


greg said...

That portrait of Eakins' wife is astonishing - those eyes. Thank you for another great post

M.McShea said...

There are three national treasures I would mourn the loss of if Washington DC were ever to be destroyed by a trick of the fates. One would be DaVinci’s Ginevra de' Benci simply because it is a DaVinci and not on any particular merit of its own but more because it is one of his few finished works, tiny as it is. Second would be Fragonard’s A Young Girl Reading a Book, a true treasure on its own merits. And third would be the Portrait of Thomas Eakin’s wife Susan.

I am on the fence regarding Eakin’s supposed sexuality. Being a native that had to escape the unique stifling Quaker subculture of Philly I empathize with him probably having to endure the many provincial aspects of an otherwise cosmopolitan city, cosmopolitan at least by the rest of Pennsylvania’s standards. Not afraid to circulate within an elite circle of friends and or acquaintances, artistically and spiritually free to follow their dreams, not afraid to look inward to their true inner selves and or souls. Intelligent people, and genius in general seeks kindred spirits on all levels and not just physical, seek intelligent social conversation, seeks its own level of comfort that defies label. That is how I see Eakins, and through the eyes of Susan in this American Masterpiece. Over the decades since I first saw it in DC, the image seems to suit and match my moods as my age changes. I see it differently, feel it differently every time I view it.

Interesting portrait of Mr. Hall BTW. Thanks for showing it.