Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Historians of medicine are not the only ones interested in the two Thomas Eakins paintings we looked at yesterday. Freudian analysts have had a field day.

Eakins was a strange and complex man. He had a fascination, one might say obsession, with the human body. Not only did both men and women pose naked in his life classes (hardly unusual), but he encouraged male and female students and family members to pose in the nude. He was quick to discard his own clothes to be photographed with naked models. Further, he required his male and female students to dissect cadavers, a gory and stinky business unprecedented in American art academies. Something of this vaguely morbid and voyeuristic tendency is said to be at work in the bared buttocks and breast of the Clinic paintings.

Eakins' mystifying sexuality has been much discussed by biographers and critics, much of it ascribed to the younger Eakins' fraught relationships with his parents. The domineering Dr. Gross, in The Gross Clinic, has been taken to stand in for Eakins' father, the cringing woman for his mother, and the almost invisible patient for the artist himself. All of this has been discussed at length in, for example, art historian Henry Adams' Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist (2005).

Was Eakins homosexual? The question has been endlessly debated. Certainly homoerotic. I'll leave you with his iconic painting Swimming, which depicts Eakins and five of his male students on a day's outing (click to enlarge). That's Eakins in the water at bottom right. A Google search will yield the artist's less-guarded photographs taken the same day.