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Thomas Eakins
(American, 1844-1916)
Walt Whitman, 1891
Vintage contact print, 3 1/16” x 2 1/4”
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James W. Titelman (88.010)

Thomas Eakins was among the most progressive artists of the nineteenth century.  His controversial images of friends and fellow professionals transcended the outworn conventions of Victorian portraiture, bringing a new level of realism to American art.  Although his fame rests mainly on his paintings, Eakins was also a gifted photographer and sculptor.  Dating to 1891, his photograph of Walt Whitman is one of a series of paintings and photographs of the famed poet which Eakins made between 1887 and Whitman’s death in 1892.  An intimate study probably intended as a reference for a painting, Walt Whitman reveals Eakins’ awareness of current developments in contemporary photography.  Its soft focus and moody lighting are typical of Pictorialism, a movement that had originated in England and was only just beginning to make its way to the United States.  Depicting Whitman as a sage or bard, Eakins turned to Pictorialist techniques in order to give his subject an otherworldly and appropriately poetic air.

Eakins was born in Philadelphia and spent most of his career in his native city.  He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and in Paris with noted painters Jean-Léon Gérôme and Léon Bonnat.  In the 1870s, he began teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy, where his unorthodox methods invited both censure and strong loyalty among students.  His early canvases, notably the graphic portrayal of an anatomical dissection known as The Gross Clinic, generated further controversy, which impeded Eakins’ professional career.  The artist remained staunchly committed to his realist vision, however, and during the 1880s and 1890s, he worked primarily on uncommissioned portraits.  He began to receive recognition toward the end of his life, and was regarded as a leading figure in American painting when he died in 1916.