He's not well known in Britain, though he does have a reputation. He exemplifies the American traditions of democratic patriotism and respect for individual achievement. And, obviously enough, he has a place in the generation of realist portrait painters before the dominance of modernism. But what we didn't realise is, simply, how good he is - how candid, virtuous and strong.
One tends to use these terms of moral approbation in front of an Eakins canvas (personally, he was not a saint) because his quality is hard to define. The paintings seem utterly straightforward. Here are local dignitaries, members of the artist's family, people driving in the park, rowing or shooting wild duck. It's as though the painter's function was to be simply descriptive. You think for a moment that the artist has nothing to add, that his personality is content with the ordinariness of visible things. But stay a little while with the pictures and you find that they were made with passion.
I found that a long look at all the pictures was necessary before feeling the individual pulse of each one. Reactions to the paintings may be tested with reference to the only picture in the show that doesn't work. It's the portrait of Dr Horatio C Wood. He was a natural subject for Eakins: a friend, a doctor, an independent spirit and something of a backwoodsman. And the picture in its mundane essentials is what Eakins so often painted: a mature man sitting at his desk and looking confidently at the artist. Yet somehow the painting doesn't satisfy. The pulse fails to appear.
I guess that Eakins's failures were few. Certainly, the achievement of the paintings at the NPG is set and maintained at a high level. You realise that painting for Eakins involved a sturdy effort of will. But the effect is more of concentration than of struggle. Eakins's realism meant that he did not search for new ways to express himself. Experiment was not in his nature. But the emotion was there.
Eakins often looked for bluntness and solidity, as in theSailboats Racing on the Delaware, which is simultaneously as fresh as the breezy weather it depicts. Or he could vary brushwork within one picture. Much of the power of Professor Benjamin Howard Rand comes from the ability to imitate the sheen on scientific
instruments, and then give quite thrilling ripples of red pigment that summarily describe the carpet. In his pictures of women singing there is a masculine delicacy. The prize-fighting painting Between Rounds also has this way of going from enamelled to painterly surfaces, or from tough to tender strokes, in a manner that is quite Eakins's own.
Though individual, his style belongs to the area of plain drama established by the international portraitists who were his contemporaries. His own roots in art are pretty clear and not original. He studied in Paris in the late 1860s under Gerome and others, and was impressed by the Spanish painting of Velasquez and Ribera. Then he went back to America, to Philadelphia, and never left. 'If America is to produce great painters and if young art students wish to assume a place in the history of the art of their country, their first desire should be to remain in America to peer deeper into the heart of American life.'
Like some other major American artists, Eakins gave such grandeur to provincialism that the local attitudes gained a universal dimension. His hankerings for metaphysics matched his professional interests in science and human management. But provincial he remained, and this kept him away from modern art. Suppose he had stayed longer in Paris, or had entered the sort of international career of his near-contemporary Whistler. He would have been lost in the course of painting after Impressionism.
Eakins's art scarcely developed. He had no need for change. As the critic Clement Greenberg put it: 'If there is such a thing as a natural, neutral, transparent style which is not academic . . . then Eakins had it.' Perhaps the phenomenon could only have arisen at his historical moment, and in America. His country gave him a particular kind of honesty. He makes other portrait painters look as if they are wearing borrowed clothes. Note that while he was a professional portraitist he did not seek or accept commissions. He sought human contact. What he admired was maturity. Even his children are given knowledge beyond their years, and his portraits of leaders of society are mysteriously adult. He was the visionary of plain dealing.
This is the last exhibition to be mounted by John Hayes, who is retiring as director of the NPG. He became interested in Eakins on a visit to America 34 years ago. What other British gallery would have thought to put on such a show as this? We are all in Dr Hayes's debt. TH
NPG (071-306 0055) to 23 Jan.
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