DescriptionTHOMAS EAKINS (American 1844 - 1916)
Nude Study (depicting Eakins's future wife Susan Macdowell), circa 1880-83
Oil on artist's cardboard laid down on wood panel
13-3/4 x 10-3/4in.
Signed in block capitals at left near the model stand, EAKINS
Susan MacDowell Eakins, wife of the artist;
Charles Sessler (1854-1945), Philadelphia;
Harry Felix (1870-1961), Philadelphia;
Acquired by descent from the previous owner;
Property of a Gentleman
This unpublished work by Thomas Eakins, one of the most provocative American painters of the nineteenth century, dates from the midpoint of his controversial ten-year tenure on the faculty of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (1876-1886). Specifically, it belongs to the period from 1880 through 1885, when the artist was concentrating upon multi-figural compositions set outdoors. In the years leading up to this work, Eakins's figures were small elements within sweeping scenes of nature (i.e., in the remarkable rowing pictures of the 1870s, and in Mending the Net, Shad Fishing at Gloucester on the Delaware, and Drawing the Seine all from 1881). By 1882-83, however, there is a pronounced shift in Eakins's paintings in regard to the figures. Eakins pulled them forward into the middle- and foreground, and also began draping them in very loose, revealing garments or undressing them until they were entirely nude. This shift first appears in a group of paintings and bas-reliefs with Arcadian themes, which feature androgynous-looking figures playing flutes and pan pipes, or reclining languidly listening to the music (Arcadia of c. 1883, oil on canvas in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; An Arcadian of 1883, oil on canvas in a private collection; Arcadia of 1883, plaster bas-relief in the Yale University Art Gallery; and two bronze bas-reliefs, Arcadia of 1883 and Youth Playing Pipes of c. 1883, both in the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.). The trend then culminates in one of Eakins's most famous, and infamous works, The Swimming Hole of 1885, which features a total of six completely nude men including the artist himself (Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth).
Curiously, for all that Thomas Eakins is associated with the nude (his coursework was grounded in life study, and he was fired from the Pennsylvania Academy in 1886 for removing a loin cloth from a male model in a class containing women), he actually produced very few nude oil studies like this one, which consequently makes it quite rare. Instead, Eakins generally used photography as his primary sketching tool, and regularly persuaded his students and even family members to pose in the nude for him. He would then work from his photographs, which were often over- or underexposed and inexpertly developed and printed, so that contrasts were frequently too low or too high and there was little detail. He often traced the figures from his photographs and transferred them onto his final supports.
Eakins produced this oil sketch during the period 1880 to 1883, while he was conceiving and working on his Arcadian imagery. The few oil sketches he made at this time are extremely similar in handling to the present work with its brushy but sensitive strokes, broadly defined planes, high-contrast lighting, and a palette restricted to ochres and umbers. (For comparable works, see Gordon Hendricks, The Life and Work of Thomas Eakins, New York, 1974, ill. in black and white p. 321, nos. 61 and 62.) This nude study can be even more closely associated with a number of photographs of a slightly built model Eakins took in preparation for his Arcadian pictures. Although at first glance the model (both in this oil sketch and the related photographs) seems to be an adolescent boy with short hair, she is actually a young woman with small breasts, rather delicate bone structure and facial features, and long hair that has been swept up to the far side of the head to reveal the ear and the curve of the neck. The model was none other than Eakins's wife-to-be, Susan Macdowell, who was also a painter. As Eakins biographer Henry Adams has noted, "Susan posed quite a few times for Eakins before they were married [in January 1884], but afterwards he seemed to have lost interest in portraying her."
This nude study in oil specifically resembles two of Eakins's nude photographs of Susan Macdowell, which show her seated on a blanket outside on the ground (one in the collection of the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution [Adams, 2005, ill. p. 292], and the other in The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Charles Bregler's Thomas Eakins Collection [Adams, 2005, ill. p. 301]). While the poses differ from this oil sketch, which was probably made from life, the profile of the model's face and the proportions of her figure are identical. In fact, it seems quite likely that this sketch also served as a working study for the well-known portrait Eakins painted of Susan in 1885, shortly after they were married (Portrait of a Lass with a Setter Dog (Mrs. Eakins), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.). In this much-discussed painting, Eakins dramatically aged his wife, giving her a hollow, careworn face while lavishing a much more sympathetic brush on the family dog at her feet, an observation first made by William Inness Homer. Interestingly, Eakins included his recent Arcadia plaster relief right behind her on the wall. What remains of Susan's likeness between the youthful girl in this peaceful, contemplative study, and the sad, middle-aged looking woman in the portrait of 1885, are the outlines of her slender body which Eakins clearly admired. However, in the portrait, one has to work a little harder to see Susan's figure, which Eakins covered up with a long dress and long sleeves.
The large signature on this intimate work is a rather unusual feature to find on a painter's preliminary study, even on those by Eakins who only occasionally signed his studies. Its presence suggests that the artist was particularly proud of the way it turned out. Indeed, it possesses a wonderful sensitivity in its description of the way light falls on the young woman's body, and reveals the delicacy of her jaw line, neck, and lost profile. The presence of such a large, proud signature in bold capitals strongly suggests that Eakins considered this panel a finished work of art in its own right. (Similar signatures from the period appear on Eakins' bas-relief Arcadia of 1883, Professionals at Rehearsal of 1883, and Portrait of Walt Whitman of 1887).
There were two notable owners of this painting by Eakins, a rare book dealer and a professional baseball player, who were celebrities within their respective spheres. The book dealer was the Austrian-born Philadelphian, Charles Sessler (1854-1945), who founded the country's oldest antiquarian bookstore in 1882. Sessler sold important books and manuscripts to many of the greatest bibliophiles of the twentieth century, including Henry E. Huntington, Henry Clay Folger, J. P. Morgan, A. Edward Newton, Jerome Kern, Barton Currie, George Widener, and Lessing J. Rosenwald. Sessler's greatest interest was Charles Dickens; he befriended the Dickens family and bought many rarities from them. He aided John C. Eckel in writing his Dickens bibliography, still a standard in the field, and he helped create important Dickens collections. Sessler's activities were not confined to Dickens; he also did some work as a publisher, but primarily bought and sold significant books and manuscripts of the fifteenth through the twentieth centuries with his assistant Mabel Zahn, who took over his firm upon his death. He also sold prints and drawings, as well as occasional paintings.
Following her husband's death, Mrs. Eakins periodically sold some of her husband's work as the financial need arose. The present painting is one she likely sold or consigned to Charles Sessler, who in turn, sold it to Harry Felix, a professional baseball player with a short but distinguished career. He pitched for the New York Giants in 1901, and for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1902, the year he was awarded the Golden Glove. After an injury he was forced to retire from baseball. After living for most of his life in Philadelphia, he retired to Miami, Florida, where he died in 1961.
We are grateful to Henry Adams for his assistance in dating the present work.
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