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Dark study of Thomas Eakins

A book by art historian Henry Adams says the American master was driven by a disturbed, abusive sexuality.

May 16, 2005|Julia M. Klein | Special to The Times

PHILADELPHIA — The scion of one of this country's most famous families has taken a scalpel to an American art icon. And his fellow scholars are not amused.

In "Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist," Henry Adams, a direct descendant of our second president, describes the acclaimed 19th century portraitist Thomas Eakins as an "exhibitionist-voyeur" who was hostile toward women, confused about gender and sexuality, inclined to incest and a likely victim of childhood sexual abuse. He was also, in Adams' view, a depressed fellow who tried to make people unfortunate enough to sit for a portrait "appear tired, worried, unhappy, distressed, worn down, or even mentally unbalanced."

Adams, 56, professor of American art at Case Western Reserve University and curator of American art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, is a well-respected art historian with degrees from Harvard and Yale and, according to his book blurb, "more than 200" publication credits. He bases his unorthodox conclusions on familiar evidence -- both Eakins' paintings and papers, and images from the Bregler Collection, made available to scholars in the mid-1980s.

Other art historians, notably Kathleen Foster, have mined this biographical trove, with its whiffs of scandal, provocative nude photographs and staunch letters of defense from Eakins' wife, Susan. But, says Foster, curator of American art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, "Henry just decided to press to one side -- to line evidence up for his dark reading to the exclusion of the other possibilities."

Squirreled away by an Eakins student, Charles Bregler, the collection reveals a man who enjoyed posing himself and others in the buff; who was accused of molesting his niece, who eventually shot herself; and whose family was rent by intense feuding.

The papers also suggest that Eakins' 1886 firing from his teaching post at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia was precipitated by a string of complaints -- not just a single incident in which Eakins removed a loincloth from a male model in front of female students.

Foster says that Eakins (1844-1916) "clearly was an exhibitionist" and "enjoyed provoking people." But in the case of the alleged molestation and other accusations, she says, "I just don't think we can tell who's really got the corner on truth."

In "Eakins Revealed," Adams has frequent recourse to both Freudian terminology and biological psychiatry, throwing around Oedipal complexes and castration fears on one page and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (the class of drugs that includes Prozac) on the next.

The response of other Eakins experts has been skeptical. "You'd be hard-pressed to come up with someone who's really on the side of Adams or in his camp," says Cheryl Leibold, an archivist at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where the Bregler Collection is housed. "He's really so extremist. What he's done is really take Freudian psychology and try to apply it to the documents that survive. In actual fact, nobody buys into Freudian psychology anymore."

Michael J. Lewis, professor of art history at Williams College in Massachusetts and the only critic reached for this article who says he has read the Adams book in its entirety, says he finds it both reductive and confusing. "Instead of weighing the evidence," says Lewis, author of "Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind," "he seems to very quickly have decided that Eakins was one sick puppy, and proceeded to diagnose six or eight maladies that are self-contradictory. We find out that Eakins was perhaps gay but also a compulsive seducer of women, an exhibitionist, a voyeur, a manic-depressive, he had a serotonin imbalance, he drank too much milk. In every instance, he [Adams] looked for the worst-case scenario."

Elizabeth Johns, professor emerita of art history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of "Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life" (1983), says she is "surprised and sorry that Adams took this tack -- focusing exclusively on Eakins' putative sexual identities and behavior -- because much of Adams' earlier work has been very fine art history."

Johns is one of the targets of Adams' book, which ranks her among those scholars engaged in "maintaining a hard-line defense of Eakins' motives." Ironically, a paperback edition of Johns' 1983 book bears the following blurb from a younger Adams: "For many decades no book so thoughtfully considered, so beautifully crafted, and so accurate and illuminating in its conclusions has been written in the American field."

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