The Philadelphia tradition of cool, clear, realistic painting, extending through Sully and Neagle, reached its peak in Thomas Eakins. Eakins was a Philadelphian of the intellectual, professional upper-middle-class; he was much too serious for the Philadelphia upper classes of his time. Brought up on Thomas Sully, Old Philadelphians were quite unwilling not to be flattered. Indeed, Eakins’s people are not pretty; not half as pretty as people really are, especially upper-class Philadelphians.
A gentleman of Chestnut Hill had Eakins do himself and his wife. He didn’t like the results. When the pictures were finished, he sent his check; the pictures were taken to Chestnut Hill; the butler met them at the door, and carted them to the furnace. This was in general the Philadelphia upper class comment on an artist who violated the appearances.
Eakins taught for ten years at the Pennsylvania Academy, completely reforming and revitalizing the course of study. When in the interests of accurate anatomy he insisted on removing the loincloth from a nude male model posing for a class of women, Philadelphia was finally outraged. Daughters of directors of the Academy were in the class, and those directors saw to it that Eakins resigned.
He lived and died where he grew up, in a substantial house on Mt. Vernon Street, north of Market and this declasse. The house still stands, though it passed through some years in a slum, and for many years bore no marker to show that Philadelphia’s greatest artist worked there.
For such an old, rich, large city, with so much education and so many advantages and such a long prosperity, Philadelphia may not have lived up to its expectations as a cultural center when it had the chance. Certainly, it let slip or snubbed many talents that it might have helped and cherished. On the other hand, as a quite new provincial city in a quite new continent only a metropolis in the last hundred-fifty years, without royal or state patronage, founded and influenced by a religious sect, Quakers, that positively hated art, Philadelphia has been an aesthetic miracle.
How do Marseilles and Lyon, Birmingham and Glasgow really compare? After over a thousand years of culture, has Vienna produced a painter of as much force and weight as Eakins? We are not remembered, as nations or cities, by our talents, who are many, but by our geniuses, who are extraordinarily few.
Above: Eakins’s painting of The Gross Clinic is a tribute to Philadelphia’s great medical tradition. The scene is the amphitheatre of Jefferson Medical College, and the central figure is Dr. Samuel Gross. The great surgeon is explaining a thighbone operation to his students while the patient’s mother covers her eyes. Modern viewers may be surprised by the formal clothes worn by Dr. Gross and the other doctors, but what shocked Philadelphia was the realistic depiction of the blood on the surgeon’s hands. The painting was refused by the Fine Arts exhibit of the 1876 Centennial and was hung instead in the medical section.