Thomas Eakins: Photography and Science
On the 25th of July 1844, American realist painter, photographer, sculptor, and fine arts educator Thomas Eakins was born in Philadelphia, U.S. Sometimes called America’s greatest painter, Eakins conducted many scientific investigations in anatomy, mathematics, perspective, and photography, which were vital to his art. He used photography as both a science and an art. In addition to his famous studies of animal locomotion with Eadweard Muybridge, Eakins also created other forms of photographs of remarkable psychological depth and beauty, among them, numerous nude studies of his family, students, professional models, and Eakins himself. “For Eakins the nude human figure became a symbol of freedom, intellectual and sexual liberty, and opposition to narrow-minded prudery. …Eakins saw the nude not as a transcendent image, nor as an allegorical or traditional one: it was a marvel of nature, the superb end product of centuries of evolution. To see and study the body in this way, Eakins had to invoke all the authority of science, drawing endless analogies between medical and artistic practice.” (The Paris Letters of Thomas Eakins)
From 1862 until his departure for Paris in 1866, Eakins studied drawing and anatomy at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) and Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. In Paris, he enrolled at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts and became a pupil in the ateliers of Jean-Léon Gérôme and Léon Bonnat. Although he most likely had gained exposure to photography before travelling to Paris, here he learned about the documentary and artistic value of using photographs as study tools with which to compose and add subtle details to paintings. He also came to believe that an understanding of the mechanics and structure of the human body was the true basis for creating art.
Another important branch of Eakins’ artistic endeavours was motion photography. In 1870, Eakins returned to Philadelphia and became an assistant instructor at the PAFA. It is around that time that his interest in photographic experimentation really sparked. In 1878, the school’s Chairman of Instruction, Fairman Rogers, approached Eakins to help him solve a visual puzzle prompted by Eadweard Muybridge’s motion pictures of racehorses. The size, lack of detail, and inconsistent intervals of the serial images kept Rogers from testing them for accuracy of movement. Rogers hired Eakins to produce drawings of the photographs with which the artist would reconstruct the horses’ positions in a consistent series. The two men could then test the results by “reanimating” the photographs in a zoetrope (pre-cinema animation device that produced the illusion of motion). Eakins applied his results to painting, depicting Rogers riding with his own team of horses in A May Morning in the Park (1879-80).
In 1884 Eakins joined Muybridge to work on his animal locomotion project. The two men outfitted a track with a series of cameras whose shutters were tripped at regular intervals as an animal or human subject walked, ran, or jumped through the space in a full period of motion. Rejecting Muybridge’s use of sequenced negatives, however, Eakins instead recorded successive exposures of motion on a single negative. In photographs such as History of a Jump (1885), he adapted Etienne-Jules Marey’s invention of a spinning slotted disk that regularly admitted light to a single point on the open lens of the camera.
However, “Eakins was increasingly unhappy with a drawback he perceived as his colleague’s failure to apply a scientific approach to his studies. Muybridge was less interested in conducting research than he was in capturing titillating and exotic imagery… Recent studies by Marta Braun have shown that Muybridge, in an effort to win popular acclaim for his work, actually edited and combined photographic plates from several sequential studies, thus “obliterating” – as art historian Douglass Paschall has described it – the objective value of his research. Eakins, on the other hand, who saw no difference between high art and good science, demanded a more scientific and rigorous approach. By the time the University of Pennsylvania professors supervising the work understood what Muybridge was doing, however, the board had already committed itself. “They would like to fire the whole concern but they have gone too far to back out,” wrote Eakins’ academy assistant, Thomas Anshutz.” (Sidney Kirkpatrick, The Revenge of Thomas Eakins)
Eakins had a longstanding interest in both human and equine anatomy. His photographs of nude models have become famous, if not notorious, having been part of the almost mythic scandal which surrounded his dismissal from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1886. In 1985 the Academy acquired the Charles Bregler Collection of Thomas Eakins’ letters, drawings, and photographs. Two hundred images of nude models, both males and females, were included, some taken in the studio and others in outdoor settings. Numerous rather prosaic images of horses were also found. In some of those photographs Eakins combined a nude male with a horse, and, – as a complete surprise to Eakins scholars – he took anatomical juxtaposition to a new level by combining a nude female with a horse. While he did not exhibit his work in public, nor join any club or society, the creation of photography imbued with such dramatic charge proves that Eakins’ ideas were those of one of the most progressive photographers of his day.