Frederick Maxfield Parrish. Part 1.

                                                            Maxfield Parish (c.1920)

In previous blogs, when I looked at the world of illustrators and the lives of some of the leading nineteenth century American exponents such as the Red Rose Girls and Howard Pyle, one name that kept cropping up was the renowned painter and illustrator, Frederick Maxfield Parrish.  He was an influential and prolific American painter and illustrator, who was ranked amongst the most commercially successful and highest paid artists of the US during the 1920s.

Frederick Parrish was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 25th 1870.  His descendent, Edward Parrish, the captain of a trading vessel which journeyed between England and Chesapeake Bay, hailed from Yorkshire, England.  On settling in America he was given three thousand acres of land where Baltimore is now situated.  Today’s artist’s given name was Frederick, but he later, in 1896, adopted Maxfield as his middle name.  This was the maiden name of his paternal grandmother, Susanna Maxfield Parrish.  Later he would use Maxfield as his professional name.  Maxfield was born into a devout Quaker family.  His father was Stephen Parrish, a landscape painter and engraver who ran a coal business and then a stationery shop in Philadelphia for several years.   The room above the shop was one in which he held etching classes.  Stephen Parrish married Elizabeth Bancroft in 1869, and his only child, Frederick Maxfield, was born the following year.

Maxfield’s first art tuition came from his father at the age of three, and years later he recounted that his father was the most influential teacher and that the two of them had an excellent relationship.   During his childhood Maxfield enjoyed drawing and was a very competent draughtsman and a constant doodler!   In 1877 Maxfield and his father travelled to France on a painting trip.  

                                                        Poems of Childhood by Eugene Field (1904)

Maxfield was taken ill as a young child and was confined to his bed for many days.  It is thought that this may have inspired Parrish many years later for the illustrations he completed for Eugene Fields book, Poems of Childhood, one of which depicted a little boy sick in bed and having weird dreams. The cutting out of shapes and figures by the young boy would have remained with him in later life when he used pencil cut-outs as groundwork for his illustrative work in later life.

                                               Etching of Gloucester Harbor by Stephen Parrish (1882)

In spite of Stephen Parrish’s lack of formal art training. In 1877, Stephen Parrish, still in his thirties. sold his shop and business and concentrated on his beloved art. This was a bold, some would say foolish move to become a professional artist having only sold only six paintings by 1879, and on top of this he had to financially support a wife and a nine-year-old son.  He was fortunate however as what was termed the Etching Revival was just beginning in America.  Between the second half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century, the Etching Revival was an expression which referred to the rebirth of etching and was all about the huge growth and circulation of the art print as, in itself, an art form, especially in the United States.  In November 1879 Stephen took his first etching lesson from the already successful Philadelphia artist, Peter Moran.

               Illustrated letter from Maxfield Parrish to Henry Bancroft, London, July 22nd, 1884

Stephen Parrish quickly recognised his son’s burgeoning artistic talent.  He and Maxfield would go off on painting trips at the weekends, first around their hometown but later further afield to places such as the Massachusetts coastal districts of Cape Ann, East Gloucester and Annisquam.  Fourteen-year-old Maxfield returned to France with his family in 1884.  They embarked on a two-year European journey during which time they visited England, northern Italy, and Paris.  During the first winter in Paris Maxfield studied art at Dr. Kornemann’s school, regularly visited art museums and attended concerts and operas every week. Besides Maxfield’s love of art he slowly developed a love of music. 

            Illustrated postcard from Maxfield Parrish to Henry Bancroft, Paris, October 24, 1884

During his time in Europe Maxfield wrote many letters and postcards to his paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Bancroft and to his cousin Henry Bancroft in Pennsylvania.  Those to his cousin were festooned with whimsical and interesting doodles. Some of the letters are held in a collection of the Delaware Art Museum. This collection consists of 34 letters and postcards written and illustrated by Parrish to his cousin, Henry Bancroft, between 1883 and 15 letters and postcards written between 1902 and 1909 and a drawing by Parrish’s son, Dillwyn.

                                                       Funeral of Victor Hugo, on June 1st, 1885

Whilst Maxfield and his family were living in Paris, the great French writer,  poet, novelist, and dramatist of the Romantic movement, Victor Hugo, died on May 22nd 1885 and on July 1st, he was laid to rest.  Crowds of people turned out for the funeral procession and Maxfield remembered the day and the funeral cortège well:

“…I was fifteen, and climbed a tree on the Champs-Elysées.  The avenue was jammed but I scattered the crowd when a branch of my tree broke with a noise like a pistol shot.  They thought it was the beginning of a nihilist demonstration…”

 Maxfield and his parents returned to America in 1886 and Maxfield continued with his education.  In 1888 he enrolled at the prestigious Haverford College, where he studied architecture and was a member of Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity. Art was not taught at this Quaker college and this fact was commented on by Maxfield who wrote:

“…It would be going too far to state that art was in any way forbidden yet there was a feeling in the air it was looked upon with suspicion, as maybe related distantly to graven images and the like…”

                                                             Thomas Eakins self-portrait (1902)

It was in 1891 when Maxfield Parrish began studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and this was almost six years after Thomas Eakins, one of the Academy’s directors, had been forced to resign in 1886, for a number of controversial decisions he had made, the final straw being him removing the loincloth of a male model in a life class where female students were present.  Despite that six-year gap Eakins’ ideas and inspirations were still in evidence at the Academy.  One of these was Eakins’ practice of using photography as a tool in his art. 

                   Photo of Male Figures at the Site of Swimming by Thomas Eakins (1883)

One of the classic examples of Eakins’ use of photography is his 1883 photo entitled Eakins’ Students at the site for the “Swimming Hole”.  In the picture we see Eakins standing slightly away from the others at the left, looking on at his students who are cavorting in the water at Mill Creek near Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

                            The Swimming Hole (The Swimmers) by Thomas Eakins (1885)

From this photograph and other studies which depicted nude boys playing at a variety of outdoor sports he slowly progressed with his famous painting entitled The Swimming Hole, which originally was simply entitled Swimming, and is now part of the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. Eakins used both male and female nudes, often students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for models, and that was another reason for his downfall as Director of the Academy.

                                                                                         The Oaks

Despite the scandals surrounding Eakins, Maxfield felt that photography could help him with his art and soon he was investigating all the possibilities this tool would afford him.  Being a supreme draftsman, Parrish had the ability to draw a figure with the exactness of a photograph.  The intricacy and time-consuming methods Parrish employed prevented him painting from nature. He was a consummate draftsman with a steady hand and an infallible eye.  He persisted on using the camera as an artistic implement, but as an aid and not a crutch for his art.  When he designed his new house, The Oaks, he ensured that there would be a darkroom in which he developed his film, which he printed on four by five inch glass slides, which could then be projected using a magic lantern.  Once that was done, he was able to move an image around in his composition until it suited him and he could begin the work of drawing and composing from scratch. Projecting the image against a wall or a board allowed him to make arrangement decisions.  Parrish developed great photographic skills and he built up a collection of over eleven hundred glass slides.

In 1892 he enrolled as a student at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA).  Initially, Parrish thought that he would carry on studying architecture, but soon he developed a love for drawing and painting and so with architecture forgotten Maxfield concentrated on becoming a professional artist.  Here he received art tuition from many great educators including Robert Vonnoh and Thomas Pollock Anschutz.   His class at the Academy included other aspiring painters such as William Glackens, who would become a renowned realist painter and one of the founders of the Ashcan School of American art, and Florence Scovel Shinn, who later became a well-known American writer, artist, and book illustrator.

Stephen Parrish’s home Northcote – now and in 1906

Maxfield had a long-term friendship with one of his Academy classmates, Elsie Evangeline Deming, who he nicknamed Daisy.  In one of the many letters that they exchanged Maxfield extolled the beauty and tranquillity of the area, Cornish, New Hampshire, where his father had moved and was having his Northcote house built.  

                                                           Aspet, home of Augustus Saint-Gaudens
Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ home in Cornish, called Aspet (present day)

Stephen Parrish had come to Cornish in 1893, following the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens along with other artists, writers, and musicians who made up what came to be known as the Cornish Colony. From 1893 to 1902 Stephen Parrish spent his time building the house, a shop, a greenhouse, a stable for his horse Betty, a studio, and the extensive gardens. To take advantage of the view Parrish lined up the main garden path with the sunset and set benches around a tall pine at the end of the path.  Maxfield said that just being in the area gave him a sense of optimism and strengthened his aspirations for the future.  In a letter from Maxfield Parrish to his friend Elsie Deming, September 3, 1893, he wrote:

“…Oh, Daisy, you should see our place in the hillsides of New Hampshire. I was there for a week and it went way ahead of expectations. Wilson Eyre is putting us a pretty house upon it which I have not yet seen. Such an ideal country, so paintable and beautiful, so far away from everything and a place to dream one’s life away. Why daddy is a new man with it all and I long to be up there and become identified with it …. I shall go up to Windsor to stay indefinitely, maybe till December. It is a paradise up there in the mountains when the year is old! I hate to think of the city again – ever! My share of outdoor life has been a generous and appreciated one. It has changed me in many ways…”

The town of Cornish became a well-known summer resort for artists and writers, who wanted to escape the hostile summer climate of New York.  Soon, the surrounding area became the centre of the popular Cornish Art Colony

                                               Annisquam Village of Gloucester, Massachusetts

In 1894 Maxfield graduated from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and went to the Annisquam Village of Gloucester, Massachusetts where he and his father, Stephen, had shared a painting studio during the summers of ’82 and ’83.  His father wanted his son to expand his artistic knowledge and suggested he enrolled at the Drexel Institute at which the legendry Howard Pyle, the dean of American illustration,  was lecturing on illustrative work and graphic design.  According to Maxfield’s son, Maxfield Jnr., Howard Pyle after looking at his father’s work  advised him that his classes at the Drexel Institute would be too elementary but Pyle enlisted Maxfield’s help in auditing his classes.  It was during one of these class audits that Maxfield met another of the painting instructors, Lydia Ambler Austin, one of only three women allowed to teach in the prestigious school, who had arrived at the Institute in 1893.

                                                            Lydia Ambler Austin Parrish (1895)

Lydia Ambler Austin, reputed to be a woman of great beauty, was born in Woodstown, New Jersey, to a Quaker farming family in 1872. She was reserved but a very clever and gifted young woman.  It transpires that during her early life, she had been a suffragette and was focused on helping women achieve status in their professions.  Maxfield Parrish was smitten by Lydia.  The story goes that Howard Pyle was involved in preparing the way for the pair to start a relationship which eventually resulted in Maxfield declaring his love for his teacher in 1894.  

                            Cover of the 1895 Easter edition of Harper’s Bazar by Maxfield Parrish.

Howard Pyle had also told Parrish that in his opinion, he was ready to execute a commission for a magazine and Pyle contacted Harper’s Bazar and recommended Maxfield’s work knowing that the magazine was looking for a new artist for their 1895 Easter cover.

Maxfield and Lydia were married on June 1st, 1895 and went on to have four children, three sons, John Dillwyn born December 13th 1904, Maxfield Frederick born August 14th, 1906 and Stephen born November 14th 1909 and a daughter, Jean who was born on June 26th, 1911.   Within a week of getting married, Maxfield Parrish left his wife and travelled to visit European salons and galleries in Paris, London, and Brussels, where he hoped to arrange to exhibit some of his work.  It also gave him a chance to observe the works of the Old Masters.  He was in awe of the great works.  In a letter from Brussels to his wife on June 20th 1895 he wrote:

“…I have been feasting on glorious pictures in a great gallery.  Oh, the masters of the Dutch and Flemish schools knew how to paint!….”

Again in another letter to his wife, this time from Paris, he wrote about his love of the French capital:

“…Here, I am in Paris at last!…………Never has anything appeared to me so vast, so magnificent.  When I arrived here at sunset the city burst upon me as nothing ever did.  The streets are endless and marvels of beauty…”

On his return to America in mid-August 1895, the couple moved to a rented apartment located at Twelfth and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia.  Life for this married couple could not have been better.  His artwork was beginning to be appreciated by publishers and he was achieving a steady income for his illustrative work.  Even after Lydia became a married woman she carried on with her art and her teaching as the money she earned help the couple’s finances.

 Maxfield Parrish poster advertising the August 1897 issue of The Century magazine

Besides the Easter cover for Harper’s Bazar, Maxfield had begun receiving commissions illustrate other covers for the magazine.  He also received money from Century magazine for posters and covers he completed in 1896. Maxfield entered this poster design to Century magazine who were holding  competitions to attract new talent. The Century Company’s poster competition for its Midsummer edition of 1896 was won by Joseph Leyendecker. Maxfield Parrish won the second prize, and his poster was used the following year.

         PAFA 1896 Poster Show poster by Maxfield Parrish

The Pennsylvania Academy commissioned Maxfield Parrish to design a poster for their 1896 Poster Show.

Maxfield Parrish’s Very Little Red Riding Hood (1897)

Another poster commission which Maxfield completed in 1897 was for the Mask and Wig Club of Philadelphia. The club which came into existence in 1888 was founded by a small group of University of Pennsylvania undergraduates, who were interested in the stage.  They were talented and ambitious young men of prominent Philadelphia families with no proper outlet for their artistic pursuits! Maxfield was asked to create a poster for their forthcoming play, Very Little Red Riding Hood. 

The Outing Magazine Last Rose of Summer cover by Maxfield Parrish, (1899). Oil, gouache and ink on paper laid on board

The Outing Magazine commissioned Parrish to provide a cover illustration for their 1899 Last Rose of Summer edition.  In the poster, Maxfield used his own face and figure to portray a youth in Grecian costume examining a rose he holds in his hand. The figure is shown sitting below one of the massive oaks on the artist’s property, flanked by two plaster lions the artist had moulded in his studio.  The depiction harks back to the 1805 poem by the Irish poet, Thomas Moore:

‘Tis the last rose of summer,

Left blooming alone;

All her lovely companions

Are faded and gone;

No flower of her kindred,

No rose-bud is nigh,

To reflect back her blushes

Or give sigh for sigh!

I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one.

To pine on the stem;

Since the lovely are sleeping,

Go, sleep thou with them;

Thus kindly I scatter

Thy leaves o’er the bed,

Where thy mates of the garden

Lie scentless and dead.

So soon may I follow,

When friendships decay,

And from love’s shining circle

The gems drop away!

When true hearts lie wither’d,

And fond ones are flown,

Oh! who would inhabit

This bleak world alone?

……………… be continued.

The Red Rose Girls. Part 3. Jessie Willcox Smith.

The third of the Red Rose Girls was Jessie Willcox Smith.  She became one of the most prominent female illustrators in the United States, during the celebrated ‘Golden Age of Illustration‘.  Jessie was the eldest of the trio, born in the Mount Airy neighbourhood of Philadelphia, on September 6th 1863, the youngest of four children.  She was the youngest daughter of Charles Henry Smith, an investment broker, and Katherine DeWitt Willcox Smith.  Her father’s profession as an “investment broker” is often questioned as although there was an investment brokerage called Charles H. Smith in Philadelphia there is no record of it being run by anybody from Jessie Smith’s family.  In the 1880 city census, Jessie’s father’s occupation was detailed as a machinery salesman.  Jessie’s family was a middle-class family who always managed to make ends meet.  Her family originally came from New York and only moved to Philadelphia just prior to Jessie’s birth.  Despite not being part of the elite Philadelphia society, her family could trace their routes back to an old New England lineage.  Jessie, like her siblings, were instructed in the conventional social graces which were considered a necessity for progression in Victorian society.   It should be noted that there were no artists within the family and so as a youngster, painting and drawing were not of great importance to her.  Instead her enjoyment was gained from music and reading.  Jessie attended the Quaker Friends Central School in Philadelphia and when she was sixteen, she was sent to Cincinnati, Ohio to live with her cousins and finish her education.

The Princess and the Goblin, by George McDonald, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith, (1920)

On completion of her education, instead of returning to the family in Philadelphia, she remained in Cincinnati to look for a job.  Jessie had always been fond of children and managed to secure a position as a kindergarten teacher which would fulfil her need for money whilst doing a job she loved.  However, the belief that all young children are angelic was soon dispelled and she found her charges obstreperous and ill-mannered and soon realised that teaching at a kindergarten was not for her.  One of her friends was interested in art and soon she had managed to inveigle Jessie into the pastime and soon she showed a certain amount of promise as a budding artist.  She remembered this change of direction writing:

“…I knew I wanted to do something with children but never thought of painting them, until an artist friend saw a sketch I had made and insisted I should stop teaching (at which I was an utter failure) and go to art school – which I did…”

John Rogers figurine

Jessie Smith returned to Philadelphia to look for some artistic training and initially wanted to study sculpture.  At the time there was a popular small table-top sculptures called Rogers Group which were relatively inexpensive, mass-produced figurines in the latter 19th which graced the parlours of homes in the United States.  These figurines, often selling for as little as $15 a piece were affordable to the middle class.  They were sculpted in more affordable plaster and painted the colour of putty to hide dust.  She did try her hand at sculpture but soon realised it needed a certain talent, one which she was lacking.  She wrote:

“…my career as a sculptor was brief for my clay had bubbles in it and burst when it was being fired. ‘Heavens’ I decided, ‘ being a sculptor is too expensive!  I will be a painter…’ ”

An illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith from A Child’s Garden of Verses is a book written by Robert Louis Stevenson

However, Jessie realised that to become a painter she needed formal artistic training and it was difficult for that to happen for a woman in 1884.  It was the age-old story.  Men who wanted to train to become professional artists had academies and teachers to support them but for women, up until the 1850’s, there were few institutions which catered for women and anyway, it was generally thought to be totally ill-advised for a woman to contemplate or prepare for a professional career, art or otherwise.  Life was mapped out for women.  Acquire certain accomplishments which would attract a man, marry that man and give him children, and then be educated at home in the skills needed to look after one’s husband and children.  For women of the middle and upper-class who were interested in art, then a private tutor could be hired but studying in mixed life-drawing classes was deemed unsuitable for women as was sketching nude statuary.

Edwin Forrest House, formerly the home of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women.

Despite this, twenty-one-year-old Jessie Willcox Smith, on October 2nd 1884, enrolled at The Philadelphia School of Design for Women, which was housed in a fashionable Philadelphia neighbourhood in an imposing mansion that had once been the home of actor, Edwin Forrest.  The School had begun when Sarah Worthington King Peter, the wife of the British consul in Philadelphia, established an industrial arts school in her home in 1848 so as to teach a trade to women, who were without a means of supporting themselves.  It was not in direct competition with the Pennsylvania Academy as its emphasis was on decorative pattern and ornament and until 1886 steered clear of controversial life-drawing classes.  After a year at the School of Design, Jessie hankered for more than it could offer her.  She wanted to study the techniques associated with Fine Art and so decided that she had to enrol at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. 

Thomas Eakins, circa 1882

She managed to persuade her parents to fund her tuition and in 1885 she enrolled in the class of the brilliant but controversial painter, Thomas Eakins.  Master and student were so different.  Jessie Willcox Smith was a conservative and shy young woman whilst her tutor was brash, carefree and provocative and cared little for the Academy’s attempt to reign him in.  Eakins represented an outrageous departure from the social norms which had structured Jessie Smith’s life.   Many complaints had been levelled at Eakins and his teaching methods especially those regarding female students.  The following year, 1886, forty-one-year-old Eakins was sacked by the Academy.   It is interesting to note that although there is no doubt her artistic ability flourished under the tutelage of Eakins she viewed him with disdain, once confiding in a friend that she thought he was a “madman”.  Jessie did attend Eakins’ life-drawing classes but of the life models used, once declared:

“…I always wished there were children in the life classes, the men and women were so flabby and fat…”

After Eakins was dismissed from the Academy, he held private classes at his studio and many of his former students attended them, but not Jessie.  She presumably did not agree with Eakins’ way of teaching and decided to remain at the Academy and study under Thomas Anshutz and James B. Kelly, two of Eakins’ former students.

Jessie Willcox Smith graduated from the Academy in June 1888.  She looked back on her time at the Academy with a certain amount of disappointment.  Although her technique had improved, she had hoped to be part of an artistic community in which artistic collaboration would be present but instead she found dissention, scandal and in the wake of the Eakins’ scandal, institutionalized isolation.  Jessie talked very little about her time at the Academy.  It had been a turbulent time and she had hated conflict as it unnerved her and made her extremely distressed.  This desperation to avoid any kind of conflict in her personal and professional life revealed itself in her idealistic and often blissful paintings.  Jessie wanted to believe life was just a period of happiness.

Illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith for the book of verse, The Seven Ages of Childhood

In 1909 a book of verse entitled The Seven Ages of Childhood by Carolyn Wells with accompanying  illustrations by Jessie Wilcox was published.

After graduation, Jessie became interested in illustration and in 1889 took a job with the advertising department of Ladies’ Home Journal, one of the leading American women’s magazines.   In 1894, nearly six years after graduating, she learned that Howard Pyle, the noted illustrator, was starting a School of Illustration at the Drexel Institute and she was accepted into the inaugural class along with Violet Oakley and Elizabeth Shippen Green.

Jessie Wilcox Smith, cover for Good Housekeeping Magazine. May 1921.

Her illustrations appeared on the covers of Good Housekeeping  resulting in most people becoming familiar with her art. For over 15 years she painted the covers for one of America’s most popular magazines. Month after month, from December of 1917 through March of 1933, a new Jessie Willcox Smith image was on the newsstands and in countless homes.

The Red Rose Girls were finally together.  In my next blog I will look at their time at the Drexel Institute with Howard Pyle and their life together.

……………………to be continued

Most of the information I used for this blog came from an excellent book by Alice A. Carter entitled The Red Rose Girls, An Uncommon Story of Art and Love.

Portrait of Maud Cook by Thomas Eakins

Portrait of Maud Cook by Thomas Eakins (1895)

As promised in my last blog, today I will complete the life story of the great American artist Thomas Eakins and look at another of his paintings, this time a portrait.  If you have just landed on this page maybe you would like to go back to my previous blog in which I started talking about Eakins’ early life and had a look at his famous painting entitled The Champion Single Sculls, a perfectly rendered quiet picture of a rower on the Schuylkill River which he completed in 1871.

After his four year stay in Europe, Eakins had returned to America and the city of Philadelphia where he remained to the end of his life.    He once again attended the Jefferson Medical College and resumed his anatomical studies and in 1878 he took up a teaching post as a volunteer at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  The following year he was appointed Professor of Painting and Drawing and in 1882 he became director of the artistic establishment.  On January 19, 1884, he married Susan Hannah Macdowell, a student at the academy.   She was, well known in the artistic community.  She was 25 when Eakins met her at the Hazeltine Gallery in Philadelphia, where his painting, The Gross Clinic was being exhibited in 1875.  This was to be his most famous picture and at the time aroused controversy because of its detailed depiction of a surgical operation.     Unlike many, Susan MacDowell was impressed by the controversial painting and she decided to study with him at the Academy, which she attended for 6 years.   Her own artwork became more sober and her painting style became of a more realistic style similar to Eakins. She was an outstanding student and winner of the Mary Smith prize for the best painting by a matriculating woman artist.

Once she married Eakins she all but gave up her art as most of her time was spent in supporting her husband’s career, being the perfect hostess when they entertained and during the difficult times after Eakins left the Academy she never wavered in her support for him, unlike some of his family and so-called friends.  The couple did not have children but it was thought they lived a happy and contented life.  She and Eakins both shared a passion for photography, both as photographers and subjects, and employed it as a tool for their art. She also posed nude for many of his photos and took images of him. Both had separate studios in their home.

In the previous blog I talked about Eakins disenchantment with the École des Beaux-Arts and their treatment of nudity.  He had definite views on the subject and once wrote:

“…She [the female nude] is the most beautiful thing there is in the world except a naked man, but I never yet saw a study of one exhibited… It would be a godsend to see a fine man model painted in the studio with the bare walls, alongside of the smiling smirking goddesses of waxy complexion amidst the delicious arsenic green trees and gentle wax flowers & purling streams running melodious up & down the hills especially up. I hate affectation…”

Eakins was a fervent believer that the male and female nude were things of beauty and nude models should be available to his students for them to complete their life drawing studies.  He was attacked for his radical ideas, particularly his insistence on working from nude models.  Eakins’s work photographing and painting nudes made him something of a liability for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he taught and it all came to a head in 1886 when he was forced to resign after allowing a class of both male and female students to draw from a completely nude male model.

The Concert Singer by Thomas Eakins

Thomas Eakins, who by the 1880s had only managed to sell nine pictures for a total of $2,000 now decided to concentrate on portraiture.   However, portraiture commissions were equally hard to come by and most of his portraiture works were of his friends and individuals who he admired and offered to paint them without payment.   My Daily Art Display painting today is an example of this.  My featured painting today is entitled Portrait of Maud Cook.  It is such a beautifully haunting portrait which Thomas Eakins completed in 1895 and is looked upon as one of his finest work of portraiture.  In 1892, Eakins had already completed portraits of Maud’s sister Weda Cook, the operatic contralto singer, one of which was entitled The Concert Singer.

Thomas Eakins’ paintings were known for being both scientifically and philosophically accurate.   For Eakins, portraiture held little interest as a means of fashionable idealization.  There was to be no glorification of how people looked.  There was to be no hint of making the person look more beautiful or younger than they actually were.   Unlike most other portrait painters of the time,  Eakins had little concern for flattering his sitters and instead demanded from himself the most precise objective images. The results were comprehensive and revealing portraits that seemed to carry with them the souls of their subjects.  Eakins refused to compromise and painted his subjects as they really were, and not as they wished to be seen.  However, it was precisely for this reason that his portraits were often rejected by the sitters or their families.

Eakins having studied anatomy and later taught it to his students applied this knowledge to the proportions of the human form in his work. He also had a certain gift for capturing the real embodiment of the person, which many artists strove for but often failed to achieve.

In this portrait of the twenty-five year old Maud Cook we see her wearing a pink dress the fabric of which flows from her shoulders and is pinned between her breasts.  Her hair is long and lies, tied with a ribbon, at the back of her neck.  Her face is tilted slightly towards the source of light which comes from the left of the painting.  Such light casts deep shadows across her face and reveals her facial structure.  There is a warmth in the light which illuminates the exposed skin of her neck and upper chest bringing to the painting a demure sensuality.  The expression on the young woman’s face is both captivating and haunting.  Is it a look of sadness or thoughtfulness?  In many of Eakins’ portraits of women he focused on their susceptibility and emotional sensitivity. Is this what he has achieved with this work?   Eakins gave the painting to Maud Cook and inscribed it on the back and carved frame:

“To his friend/Maude Cook/Thomas Eakins/1895”

Years later, Maud Cook described the portrait to the artist’s biographer:

“…As I was just a young girl my hair is done low in the neck and tied with a ribbon. Mr. Eakins never gave the painting a name but said to himself it was like ‘a big rosebud…'”

The painting was later bought by the newspaper publisher and art collector, Stephen Carlton Clark, who on his death bequeathed the painting to Yale University Art Gallery where it remains today.

The American artist Robert Henri, who had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1886 to 1888 and knew Eakins, wrote an open letter about him to the Art Students League a year after the artist’s death.    In it he described the great man:

 “…Thomas Eakins was a man of great character. He was a man of iron will and his will to paint and to carry out his life as he thought it should go. This he did. It cost him heavily but in his works we have the precious result of his independence, his generous heart and his big mind. Eakins was a deep student of life, and with a great love he studied humanity frankly. He was not afraid of what his study revealed to him. In the matter of ways and means of expression, the science of technique, he studied most profoundly, as only a great master would have the will to study. His vision was not touched by fashion. He struggled to apprehend the constructive force in nature and to employ in his works the principles found. His quality was honesty. Integrity is the word which seems best to fit him. Personally I consider him the greatest portrait painter America has produced…”

It was only during the final years of his life that Eakins began to receive a little bit of the recognition he deserved. He died in 1916 in the Philadelphia home in which he was born. As is the case with many great artists, Eakins’ fame is almost entirely posthumous.  Eakins had struggled to make a living from his work which is somewhat ironic as his painting The Gross Clinic fetched US$ 68 million in 2006.  Today Thomas Eakins is regarded as one of the most important American artists of any period.

After his death in 1916, his wife returned to painting, adding considerably to her output right up to the 1930s.  Her artistic style changed becoming much warmer, looser, and brighter in tone.   She died in 1938.


The Champion Single Sculls by Thomas Eakins

The Champion Single Skulls by Thomas Eakins (1881)

I had planned that this single blog would be all about the American artist Thomas Eakins and I had decided on which painting I would feature.  However whilst researching the life and works of this great painter I came across another painting of his which I fell in love with and decided that I could not pass up the opportunity of highlighting that particular work of art as well, so I have decided to split Eakins’ life story over two blogs which gives me the opportunity to feature not just one of his paintings, but two.

Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins was born in Philadelphia in 1844.  He was the eldest child of five children of Caroline Cowperthwait Eakins, whose ancestors were part English and part Dutch, and Benjamin Eakins, who was the son of a Scottish-Irish weaver.  Thomas Eakins was brought up in a loving family environment and had a close and caring relationship with his father.  Father and son both loved sporting activities and they would often go out swimming together in the nearby river and when the harsh winters set in and the river froze over they would go ice skating.  It was also Thomas Eakins’ father who introduced him to the world of rowing, which he would enjoy as a sport and also depict in many of his paintings.  His father was also very interested in art and had many artist friends and would spend much time discussing art with his son.

Benjamin Eakins was a calligrapher and writing master and as such would spend hours pouring over parchment documents which he had to inscribe.   Thomas would watch his father at work and by the age of twelve became competent in line drawing, perspective and the grid work which was the needed in formulating designs and it was a technique that Eakins would sometimes use in his own artwork in the future.   Thomas Eakins attended the Central High School, a public secondary school in Philadelphia. The school still exists to this day and is regarded as one of the top public schools in America due to its high academic standards.  Here Eakins studied many subjects including mechanical drawing at which he proved an excellent student.   In 1861, at the age of seventeen, Thomas Eakins enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art where he studied drawing and anatomy.  In 1864 he transferred to the Jefferson Medical College where he once again studied anatomy and at one time considered the medical profession as his future.

In 1866, aged twenty-two, he travelled to Europe to study art and remained there for four years.  Whilst in Paris he studied under the French realist painter Jean-Leon Gérome and worked as an apprentice at the atelier of the portrait painter, Léon Bonnat.  It was under his tutorship that Eakins learnt the importance of anatomical accuracy in paintings and a technique he would adhere to in his own future works.   He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris but like so many who studied there he railed against what he looked upon as that establishment’s classical pretentiousness.  He was also critical with regards the Academy’s treatment of nudity which was always couched in classical or mythological settings.   In William Innes Homer’s 1992 biography of Eakins entitled, Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art, he quotes from a letter Thomas wrote to his father in which he expressed his criticism, he wrote:

“…She [the female nude] is the most beautiful thing there is in the world except a naked man, but I never yet saw a study of one exhibited… It would be a godsend to see a fine man model painted in the studio with the bare walls, alongside of the smiling smirking goddesses of waxy complexion amidst the delicious arsenic green trees and gentle wax flowers & purling streams running melodious up & down the hills especially up. I hate affectation…”

From Paris he travelled to Spain and became influenced by the works of the great Spanish painters such as Velazquez and Ribera which he saw in the Prado.  He returned home to Philadelphia in 1870 and set about working on a series of oil paintings and watercolours, which featured rowing scenes and portraits of champion rowers.  However this depiction of such a modern sport in paintings was reported to have shocked the more staid and conservative local artistic establishment.

The featured painting in My Daily Art Display today is one of this series of paintings featuring rowing scenes.  It is entitled The Champion Single Sculls sometimes known as Max Schmitt in a Single Skull and was completed by Thomas Eakins in 1871.  The setting is the Schuylkill River that meanders quietly through Philadelphia and which is an ideal venue for rowing.  The central figure in this painting is the champion oarsman, Max Schmitt, a childhood friend of Eakins and who, like Eakins, had attended the Central High School.  Max Schmitt, a lawyer, was by far the best oarsman in Philadelphia at the time and had won, against formidable opposition, the first ever single skulls championship on the Schuylkill in 1867 and his friend Eakins sent him a congratulatory telegram from Paris.

The painting is not of the race itself but simply depicts the moustachioed Schmitt taking a break from his training session.  The rower rests and turns to face.  His oars cause a ripple on the surface of the river as they continue to skim across the water.   Schmitt and his racing scull are reflected on the mirror-like surface of the river.  To become a successful oarsmen one needs to have upper body strength and we can see how Eakins has depicted the toned muscular torso of Schmitt.

In the middle ground of the painting we see another oarsman and this is Eakins himself, who is rowing at speed away from us.  His name and the date are inscribed on his boat but it is difficult to make this out in the attached picture.  The name of Schmitt’s scull is much easier to read.  It is Josie which was named after his sister.  Another rowing boat can be seen in the background with its two rowers and a coxswain all of whom are wearing Quaker clothes.   Just beyond them we see the stone arches of the Connecting Railroad Bridge with a steam train just about to cross its span.  Further back is the first Girard Avenue Bridge, behind which we can just make out a steamboat chugging up the river.

Although at first glimpse we presume the setting is somewhere in the countryside, it is not, as the Schuylkill  River runs through Fairmount Park, which at the time was the largest urban park in America and would be the site of the 1876 Universal Exposition.