Glenn Holsten

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Annotated by:
Mathiasen, Helle

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Video


This 2002 DVD, copyrighted by WHYY in Philadelphia and narrated by Blythe Danner, consists of a one-hour documentary about Philadelphia-born painter, photographer, and sculptor Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and eight short films about different facets of his life and work. Photographs by and of Eakins, his paintings, letters, and sketches are interspersed with commentary by his biographer Elizabeth Johns, and by art historians and historians. The DVD describes Eakins’s training, art production, and aspects of his personal life.

Eakins was already an excellent draftsman, trained at Central High School in Philadelphia, but he first learned to paint during the three-plus years he spent in Paris at École des Beaux Arts. The practice there was to paint from live, nude models instead of from plaster casts, as was customary in Philadelphia. After Paris, he traveled to Spain where he visited Madrid and Seville. He developed great admiration for Goya, Ribera, and Velazquez. His letters home indicate how much he missed his family, yet also how seriously he worked on his art.

Returning to Philadelphia, Eakins set up his studio in his family's home on Mt. Vernon Street. He spent most of the rest of his life in his childhood home. Eakins painted portraits of athletes, for example, rowers and boxers. He chose sitters skilled in the arts, in medicine, business and industry, and painted family members. He always portrayed people and scenery he knew well, and athletes skilled in sports he himself loved. An excellent draftsman and highly trained painter, Eakins became a popular instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts had an institute policy that prohibited the use of live, nude models, especially in mixed classes, but Eakins rebelled against these rules by asking his students to model nude in the classroom and outside. Eakins also modeled in the nude himself. He photographed and painted his students in the nude. He believed that artists must study human anatomy through anatomy lectures, dissection, and observation of the body in motion. He assigned such tasks to his American students. Because of his rebellion against Academy rules, he was forced to resign.

Eakins finished his most ambitious painting, The Gross Clinic (annotated in this database) when he was 31 years old. The work, now recognized as an American masterpiece, was poorly received by his contemporaries. Much of his later production was portraits of people he asked to sit for him, including Walt Whitman. He painted a number of cowboy pictures during his stay at a North Dakota ranch where he was recuperating from depression. He also painted twenty-five portraits of Philadelphia physicians.

The last photo of Eakins in his studio, featured in the documentary, shows him seated with his back to the viewer and surrounded by the many pictures he had been unable to sell or which were rejected by his sitters. Eakins is now recognized as a major American artist, particularly in portraiture.


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