Thomas Eakins earned himself quite a reputation during his lifetime. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, he didn’t hold his tongue, and he didn’t paint lies. The latter got him into a bit of trouble as a portrait painter—he painted people as he saw them, not necessarily as they wanted to be seen—but his commitment to realism created a lasting legacy in American art.
When I look at Eakins’ depiction of the human figure, I’m always taken aback by how natural the body looks. Not beautiful, not symbolic, but natural. For example, in Female Nude, the curve of the spine, slight jut of the shoulder blades, and delicately creased skin behind the knee look so real. This isn’t an idealized body, but one that looks as if it actually exists. I also notice how Eakins didn’t depict the body as a closed form with strong contour lines, but one with volume that seems to actually evoke the substantiality of skin over muscle, and bone.
In The Thinker, the way the figure’s weight is supported on his heels with his shoulders slightly canted and his head bowed reinforce the fact that Eakins knew human anatomy and how the body functioned in such a stance. But the details—the tendons on the figure’s wrist that bulge slightly and the far-off gaze, pursed lips, and furrowed brow—make the portrait come alive, as clichéd as it sounds. You really get a sense that this figure—and his deep thoughts—exists.
The relaxed, familiar feeling that comes from Eakins’ Portrait of Weda Cook is achieved on several levels, all of which I’d love to be able to recreate. The figure’s position and size relative to the picture plane make it look as if she is sitting right next to the viewer. Her gaze is distracted and focused simultaneously, as if something just out of our view has caught her attention, reinforcing the idea that we occupy the space with her. And the warm, rosy, and golden colors of the sitter’s blouse, cheek, and lips compliment the figure and reinforce the ‘at ease’ feel of the work.
The essential abilities of a portrait painter are to simultaneously paint what is within and what is without—the physicality and mentality of your model. But getting there takes practice and tutorship. You can study with some of the best portrait-painting instructors working today and you can also steep yourself in understanding the body as an art form in itself with this new book on body painting titled The Human Canvas.