Arts

A Spot of History: Thomas Eakins

Andrew Huff
Contributor

The art of sketching as we conceive it depends, in part, on a brazen moment in Philadelphia art history known as the Thomas Eakins, “The loin cloth incident.”

Thomas Eakins sketch of two sweep rowers in an old wooden crew shell (Photo: Google)

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Eakins, is recognized as a quintessential 19th century American realist for his movement away from landscape toward portraiture and outdoor athletic subjects. In 1876, he began teaching life drawing classes at the nation’s oldest art school and museum, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), later becoming its director in 1882.
His audacious commitment to sketching and sculpture from the nude emerged from his own artistic sojourn through Paris in the late 1860s. His praxis intended to usher students away from lifeless body drawings done from body casts.
However, his method became infused with a more scientific domain. Having taken courses in human anatomy and dissection at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, Eakins reinforced the dynamism between artist, body, and representation of the body with the introduction of a dissecting room in the PAFA.
While other changes during Eakins’ tenure were well heralded (hierarchical course structures and allowing women to become students and be taught at the PAFA on an equal basis as men), Victorian Philadelphia quietly fumed over his unorthodox teaching methods.
In 1886, Eakins’ removed a male model’s loincloth in front of female students to emphasize the merits of using a live figure as a muse, although his enthusiasm for the medium led the PAFA administration to dismiss him from the Academy entirely.
Nevertheless, Eakins’ certainly retained the last word on the matter from a historical perspective: even after the artist’s absence, the PAFA kept his tutorial methods intact.

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