DescriptionTHOMAS EAKINS (American 1844 - 1916)
Study for the 1908 version of William Rush Carving his Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, New York
Oil on canvas
20 x 16in.
Squared off for enlarging
Mrs. Thomas Eakins;
Eakins Estate, 1939, 38/449, S-5089 (Study for Rush Picture);
Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Fleischman, New York;
Lloyd Goodrich, Thomas Eakins. His Life and Work, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1933, no. 449 (not illustrated but listed as "STUDY OF RUSH. Same attitude and costume as in finished picture. Canvas 20 x 16. Unsigned. Squared off for enlarging. Owned by Mrs. Thomas Eakins."), p. 203.
This work is a study for Thomas Eakins's late version of William Rush Carving his Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River of 1908, now in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, New York. Like the handful of other known oil sketches Eakins made in preparation both for the Brooklyn version and for an even later unfinished version in the Honolulu Museum of Art of c. 1910, this study is very impressionistic, and rapidly executed on a heavy weave canvas (See Goodrich, 1933, pp. 203-204, nos. 445-454). It was a work Lloyd Goodrich saw in the Eakins home while it was in the possession of the artist's widow, and included it in his catalogue of all of Eakins's known works. In its handling, this urgent sketch is situated at the opposite end of Eakins's career from the much quieter study of his wife-to-be, Susan Macdowell, also in this auction. The present work is the most extensive as well as the largest recorded study Eakins produced for the figure of Rush himself. In this study, Eakins was working from a clothed male model, which the artist later modified so that the figure more closely resembled his own figure and features in the versions now in Brooklyn and Honolulu. This sketch makes a careful study of the way the mallet rests in the sculptor's hand, the profile of his stance (particularly the legs), and the way the head and upper torso are foreshortened.
Eakins's two late treatments of the William Rush subject are significant as the only instance in the artist's entire career that he reworked one of his compositions. In fact, one of the most compelling aspects of this break from his usual practice is that Eakins was reworking a composition he had painted not just recently, but some 30 years before. Moreover, these late versions represent Thomas Eakins's last attempts at painting a subject other than portraiture. Perhaps the operative word in this context is "pure" portraiture, since the subject of Rush carving in a shadowy studio with a nude woman as a model, arguably contains Eakins's last self portrait.
Just why the subject of William Rush, the eighteenth-century Philadelphia sculptor and ship's carver who was commissioned in the early 1800s to carve an allegorical figure of the Schuylkill River for the newly constructed Philadelphia waterworks, was important to Thomas Eakins deserves some explanation. At some profound level, Eakins associated with Rush, who was regarded as the finest artist in Philadelphia in the century prior to his own. The painter had also developed a fantasy that Rush was great because he had worked from the nude, just as Eakins himself did, even though there is no evidence of this whatsoever, and Rush's allegory is clothed (cf. a bronze cast after Rush's original, also known as Nymph with a Bittern, is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art). The two artists were thus bound in Eakins's mind both by greatness in their respective eras, and by their shared approach to art as something grounded in life study, a practice for which Eakins felt he was unfairly persecuted by the prudery of straight-laced Philadelphia society.
As many writers have pointed out with greater or lesser candor, from Lloyd Goodrich to Michael Fried to Henry Adams, the story of Eakins's use of the nude, and his reasons for advocating life study, seemed to reach beyond the issue of bucking Victorian convention in the name of liberating art. Other darker, deep-seeded psychological needs propelled him not only to use nude models but remove his own clothing in front of sitters and students at moments that had nothing to do with art study. (For a recent extensive reading of Eakins's psychology, see Henry Adams's recent study, Eakins Revealed. The Secret Life of an American Artist, New York, Oxford University Press, 2005.)
It is instructive to compare the three versions of Eakins's theme of William Rush to understand how the treatment of the subject evolved, and where the present study seems to fit. In the first version of William Rush of 1876 (in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art), which Eakins painted shortly after joining the faculty of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, a nude young woman with a slim boyish figure stands in the middle of the picture on a model stand, posing for Rush with her back to the viewer. An elderly female chaperone in historically appropriate costume sits to her right while Rush is working away in the background shadows. The focal point of the first version isn't Rush, his sculpture or even the illuminated backside of the nude model, but rather the spectacular array of the model's discarded clothing on the chair in the central foreground.
In the second version of this picture, the work in Brooklyn for which the present painting is a study, the stripped off garments aren't part of the picture anymore. There is a stiffly standing model, still turned around facing the background. The elderly woman chaperone has been replaced by an African-American woman in contemporary dress facing the viewer on the far left side of the painting. Most of the picture surface is now devoted to the figure of Rush, carving away in his cluttered workshop. All the bric-a-brac of his craft is there heaped upon the table and displayed willy-nilly all over the back wall in the sort of disarray which Lloyd Goodrich specifically noted had resembled Eakins's own untidy studio, with Eakins himself in it. By the time he had painted this 1908 version, Eakins had been fired from the Pennsylvania Academy for ripping a loin cloth off a male model in a class full of women pupils, and was out of favor in Philadelphia art circles.
In the last treatment of William Rush in Honolulu, Eakins's composition changes dramatically. Instead of focusing his design on Rush's sculpting activities (the subject of the present study), Eakins focused all dramatic interest on Rush helping the nude model down from the model stand. Rush faces away from the viewer and the completely nude female model is now turned around so that she is facing fully to the front. This painting represents the only time in Eakins's career that he showed a fully frontal female nude, with pubic hair clearly visible. This final version of Eakins's treatment of the William Rush subject is widely regarded as one of Eakins's final paintings, if not the last work of his life, the canvas he was working on when he had a stroke in 1910 which ended his painting career. In this final painting, Eakins (in the guise of William Rush) offers his hand to the model as she steps down from the model stand, almost as though she is stepping out of a carriage in a long and unwieldy gown. Here, rather than a monster, Eakins shows himself as a gentleman artist, respectful of the nude model on whom he based his life's work.
We are grateful to Henry Adams for offering insightful suggestions for the present entry.
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