kenneth houck

kenneth houck
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,
February 19
simply an artist, graduate Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a Philadelphia Artist but with no pretense that art is inhibited by location. A pilgrim seeking the path more than the meaning; grateful to fine friends, mentors, teachers


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MARCH 17, 2012 9:57PM

Pickles at PAFA-The Strange Case of Mr. Eakins and Dr. Gross

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Thomas Eakins is a strange figure in the history of American Art. He did not become a painter from a childhood or even adolescent desire to be an artist but thought of himself as a writing master. medical student, anatomical lecturer after graduating from Central High. He left for the Ecole des Beaux Arts almost seven years after graduating high school, used force of personality and a few lies to gain entrance and was an indifferent student under Gerome leaving without completing the full life drawing necessary for a certificate from Gerome. The year he left for France was also a year of scandals around anatomical dissections resulting in the Resurrection Act of 1867, perhaps they were connected.

Eakins is remembered by his admirers as an independent champion and martyr of truth yet he never lived independently of his father's success or even outside of his family home; avowed strong support for the union during the civil war but paid for a substitute; affected the role of a "rough" yet actively sought the favor of people of wealth and position especially as he worked his way from unpaid volunteer to director of the Academy within seven years of his return to Philadelphia.

He is remembered as a teacher of art but cannot count a single significant artist among his students, despite the great loyalty of the "Eakins boys" a majority of the students and faculty of the Academy did not support him when he was dismissed within five years of being appointed.

He is a significant American painter yet two of his signature works Champion of Single Scull (1871) and The Gross Clinic (1875) were completed within five years of his return from France and before he became an instructor at the Academy. He painted throughout his life and there are other major work, and most of his works have passages which still instruct, but after the rejection of The Gross Clinic his pallete, energy, even his joy in painting decline.

The Champion Single Scull, Metropolitan Museum of Art 

The public rejection of his "big painting" which he felt would be his Master's piece from the Centennial Exhibition presaged his fall from grace: his estrangement from his family, black listing from Philadelphia Society, dismissal from PAFA, and a strong physical and mental decline. The sky would never again be as blue in his paintings or the portraits as strong and hopeful but instead the "brown soup" and pathetic songs would dominant.

And The Gross Clinic is a powerful work. I have spent several hours before it and if faults can be found, and faults can always be found, they do not compromise its strength. The message was of science standing brave and determined to address fear and pain with skill and knowledge. It was as brave a portrait of the American spirit of 1876 as the Furness building with its Romanesque "church" now with grand staircase ascending to art and steel I beams speaking of the future, or the 2nd Empire City Hall rising as France was rising from the Prussians and Commune.


The accepted version is that the acceptance committee found the painting too bloody and the subject unacceptible for a "genteel public". I have never believed that a public which not only survived but glorified the Civil War with cycloramas, history paintings, photographs would have swooned by blood on a surgeons hand. History Painting, still thought to be the highest painting was often of blood and brave torment of death: The Death of Wolfe, Massacre in Boston, Spirit of 76, Raft of Medusa. Within a few months of the Centennial the lithopgraphs of  Custers Last Stand would dominate the public sensibility.

I believe the real discomfort was that it reminded Philadelphia of the cost of such surgical skill and Thomas Eakins own history with the bodies of the destitute sacrificed in the surgical amphitheater picture. Eakins had a rough humor and always enjoyed the discomfort of women and the "better sort" at his stories. The same "refined and literate" class had bought tickets to lectures on anatomy and undoubtedly Eakins had made a point of letting them know he had seen them

The scandals and rumors of the Resurrectionists had never died down in Philadelphia from the mobs chasing Dr. Shippens to the complaints of Doctors at Jefferson and University of Pennsylvania that there were not enough bodies during "dissection season". The Upper Class of Philadelphia were sensitive to their reputations and had been nettled by George Lippard, his friend Edgar Allen Poe, the caustic observations of Charles Dickens, and now Walt Whitman. They were proud of their city, its culture, its history, its wealth but they were very aware of its dirty linen as well and had no intention of hanging it in plain site when the world came to visit the city.

It is common in the history of art for great painting to have had threir rejections and the critical reviews of  The Gross Clinic were mixed. It was hung in the medical display but to be excluded from his contemporaries must have stung.  It was hardly a fatal blow- Eakins had fine paintings ahead and would be Director of the Academy  but he was not the same. His pallete turned to earth tones and "brown soup" backgrounds as taste was developing to the rich colors of the post Impressionists. He never established a proper Victorian painter's studio nor did he properly entertain guests. He flaunted rough dress and poor manners, his portraits were as likely to depress the sitters as gratify them.

He made converts of adolescent rebellion but even they grew uncomfortable with his company and his memory as they matured. He had once defended teaching human dissection to artists in Scribner's magazine by stating that dissection was distasteful but allowed eventual beauty. But it is almost as if Eakins dissected himself and his art finding bits of knowledge others might use but losing the energy and joy which would have sustained a mature artist.

And so, patient reader, I conclude "Pickles at the Academy". Thank you for your patience.   

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Thank you for educating me on an important history in American art.
old new lefty- Thank you for reading. Eakins revealed is an excellant read on Thomas Eakins as is Alan Braddock's "Jeff Boys" you can access online.
I've always been fascinated by Eakins and especially The Gross Clinic. It's beautifully rendered but very disturbing. Thanks for the info.
Ann, thank you for your comment. Eakins is fascinating and, like all artists, flawed (thank heavens). I do recommend "Eakins Revealed" for a look at the man.