Pulitzer-winning historian McFeely (Proximity to Death, 1999, etc.) offers a sturdy, well-written consideration of the eccentric artist who may or may not have been a homosexual.
Haunted and fascinated by the inherent sadness and searing beauty of later works by Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), the author delves into the man’s psyche to reveal an immensely talented painter tortured by chronic depression and “bedeviled” by ambiguous sexuality—a trait McFeely continuously orbits without ultimately arriving at a definitive answer. He portrays Eakins as an impassioned, “subversive” educator whose unconventional preoccupation with anatomy and photography were only two of the interests that made the administration at Philadelphia’s Academy of the Fine Arts rather wary of him. “An unorthodox and brilliant teacher and a wonderfully crazy character who was able to be totally uninhibited with his students,” Eakins treated female pupils with respect but had his most intense relationships with the men. He had been teaching for three years when he was commissioned to paint President Rutherford Hayes’s portrait, in 1877; he made his first sale of a finished work to Smith College three years later. In 1884, he married Susan Macdowell, one of his prize students. Husband and wife were “truly great friends,” states McFeely. “What precisely the nature of their sexual history with each other was, no one can be sure”—though he strongly suggests it was minimal. That same year, Eakins produced Swimming, the provocative, homoerotic masterpiece that played a role in his dismissal from the Academy of the Fine Arts in 1886. His deep depression over being fired was somewhat alleviated by a new friendship with Walt Whitman that lasted until the poet’s death. Eakins’s melancholy in later years was assuaged by sculptor (and another possible love interest) Samuel Murray.
The narrative moves along smoothly enough, though the author’s obsession with his subject’s sex life becomes tedious. The generous amount of illustrations best capture the artist’s elusive essence.