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.