Exhibition: A quiet American: Andrew Graham-Dixon on nervous clarity and painful emotion in 'Thomas Eakin' at the National Portrait Gallery

WHEN THE 29-year-old Thomas Eakins set out to paint his friend John Biglin in a Single Scull in 1873, he was not to know that he was about to create one of the most remarkable American paintings of the 19th century. The picture is modest in scale, and it is easy to be deceived by this into regarding it simply as a convincing essay in naturalism: to admire the subtlety with which the artist depicts broken reflections in water; to note the minutely careful observation brought to bear on the pale body of an oarsman at the top of his stroke; to see a pretty good likeness of a man rowing. But how much more it is than that.

To look at this picture, with hindsight, is to see the soul of American painting squeezed into the narrow dimensions of a canvas 2ft high by 11 2 ft across. It is a study in determination, one of the first images in American art of the all-American, dogged drive to get on. But it is also a study in loneliness, a picture that sees rapt absorption in a task at hand as a form of alienation from the world. Eakins paints the river and its environs as a bright and sunlit place, but one to which his oarsman seems entirely indifferent. The picture predicts the heavy melancholy of Edward Hopper's barflies or office-workers, lost in their concerns, painted some half century later. It is prescient in other ways besides.

John Biglin in a Single Scull (what an unassuming title) contains, suspended within it, the two contrary impulses of the American artistic imagination: the impulse to observe, in its clear-eyed and close-focused concentration on things (an oar, a knotted red kerchief, the white rim of a sock); and the impulse to idealise, to abstract, to see the world as a pretext for visionariness. To scan the picture as its tall format suggests you do is to register the tripartite division of Eakins' landscape and to see, too, how it has been painted as a kind of ascension from the real to the ideal: the eye moves up from foreground detail (busy shards of reflection in its watery foreground) to vague middle distance (the foliage on the far bank of the river has been painted with a deliberate sketchiness, a realist relaxing his hold on things) and up to empty sky, a blue void of feathered paint. Ignore the oarsman and the painting becomes a Rothko in embryo, a New York School painting painted before the New York School was dreamed of.

'Thomas Eakins', at the National Portrait Gallery, has been installed with abominable insensitivity but the pictures refuse to be stifled by the purple mausoleum created for them: they confirm Eakins as an artist who, though barely known in Europe, stands comparison with the more famous French painters of his time, Degas, Bonnard and Vuillard. Eakins lived and worked in his native Philadelphia but he trained in France in the 1860s and acquired a lifelong distrust of the played-out conventions of Salon academicism. In 1868 he wrote to his father complaining that 'the professors talk classics & give out classic subjects & make a fellow draw antique . . . I love sunlight & children & beautiful women & men their heads & hands & most everything I see & some day I expect to paint them as I see them.' Those breathless ampersands signal Eakins's enthusiasm and, too, his integrity. Paintings, for him, seem always to have sprung from deep internal necessity - would have to be made because people and the emotions they roused in him had to be exorcised in paint.

Eakins saw with a sharp and nervous clarity shot through with deep and intense feeling. His acuteness is often embarrassing and sometimes painful. Painting The Artist's Wife and his Setter Dog, Mr Eakins sees Mrs Eakins with both tenderness and ruthlessness: a pale, skinny waif slumped in a chair, she has the look of a child who has just stopped crying (her eyes are red- rimmed and tearful) but has yet to be properly consoled. She occupies one of those 19th-century interiors which, all heavy dark brown furniture and Persian rugs, speak of the weighty and consequential world of adulthood. But, childlike, her blue silk dress draped over her tiny frame like a piece of fancy dress, she seems out of place, not yet grown-up enough for her responsibilities: human in a raw way that always seems to have touched Eakins.

The Concert Singer is a stange painting about the strangeness of performing. The singer is splendid in salmon-pink silk but her pose and expression are gawky and moronic, her half-open mouth and far- away gaze suggestive of idiocy. The conductor's hand and the fronds of a palm tree intruding on the right, as daringly cropped as details in any Degas of the time, announce Eakins's determination to see things obdurately askew and, by implication, afresh.

Eakins was a great painter of the way in which people fail to fit the worlds they occupy, and of the way in which feelings have a way of spilling out of those who most strive to contain them. Edith Mahon, a bust-length picture of a lady in an elegant black dress, could easily have been a society portrait. It is not hard to imagine what Sargent, say, would have made of the same subject - glittering sequins, creamy flesh emerging from decollete dress, the sexy flash of an eye - but Eakins has painted a picture of someone whose social poise has suddenly deserted her. Her elegant costume is almost cursorily handled so that all your attention is focused on a face that seems charged with an extraordinary sense of loss. Eakins's Edith Mahon gazes, moist-eyed, into space, an image of profound human sadness caught unawares. She hated the painting.

Eakins's greatest gift may have been his ability to see and paint the unexpected. He was always finding, or at least projecting, sadness or vulnerability in odd places. One of the most extraordinary pictures in this show is a portrait of a physicist, Professor Henry A Rowland. Eakins paints him a little bit like Saint Jerome in his study but there is something disconcerting about the glassiness of his stare: he seems present yet absent, abstracted by thought. What is most daring is the picture's frame, which Eakins has - with fantastic skill - carved with opaque diagrams and equations in precise mimicry of the subject's handwriting. The frame imprisons the sitter, makes him seem hemmed in (almost paralysed) by his concerns.

Eakins' work resists pat generalisations because each picture demands to be looked at on its own terms, as a feeling or an insight preserved in paint rather than merely an example of the oeuvre, just another Eakins. The painter constantly surprises. A portrait of a young man (Douglass Morgan Hall) is charged with unexpected sensuality, the sense of a living body suddenly and simply conjured in the painter's observation of a shirt just slightly too tight. A portrait of an infant(Baby at Play) yields an unexpected image of gravity, of the sober intentness of a two-year-old concentrating on her game. At their best, Eakins's pictures are naked, entirely unaffected, almost involuntarily honest. Perhaps that letter he wrote to his father in 1866 could provide his epitaph. Eakins painted things as he saw them.

National Portrait Gallery, London WC2H 0HE to 24 Jan 1994 (071-306 0055)

(Photographs omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor