A common myth of all poor starving artists is that they will be discovered after they're dead and be venerated forever. In an age when you can get rich and famous by glueing broken crockery to canvas or stuffing a dead fish into a tank of formaldehyde, it is usually a case of a poor choice of publicists than undiscovered talent and the real loser is the poor fool who buys contemporary art for a high price only to watch the value crash when the artist moves on and his work starts to fall apart or rot.
But there was a time when truly great artists did suffer. We all know about Van Gogh, but Thomas Eakins was also a classic example. Everyone loves his sports pictures and his two group portraits of heroic doctors lecturing their students (the Gross Clinic and the Agnew Clinic) even make a Christian Scientist envy those who have chosen the medical profession.
But for my money, his portraits stake the primary claim to Eakins' greatness. His sitters usually refused to accept their portraits, some destroyed them, others refused to sit at all (Mr. Kirkpatrick quotes one lifelong friend of Eakins who always refused to sit for him because he was afraid that Eakins would uncover what he had spent his lifetime trying to conceal).
And I'd imagine that viewing your Eakins-painted portrait for the first time must have been an eerie, almost supernatural event. Looking at his splendid portraits today, you KNOW the subjects, their hardships and triumphs, their hopes and fears. These are not prettified and bowdlerized pictures to hang on a wall, these are the real thing. It is as if Eakins stripped away the skin of his sitters to reveal the pure psyche underneath. They are beautiful and informative and moving. Fifteen minutes with an Eakins is more enlightening than a month in a room of Sargeants.
Mr. Kirkpatrick's fine biography is one of the best on any subject. He manages to capture the man and his times and the man IN his times, in a way that few biographers can accomplish. He manages to make the story exciting, even as he takes the reader through an almost brushstroke by brushstroke description of Eakins' painting process.
At first, my only reservation was the title. The point of it is to show how Eakins fame after death was his revenge for the tragedy of his career (a close and valued student conspiring to replace him, loss of reputation for insisting on painting things as they are, base and highly publicized accusations [about which Mr. Kirkpatrick carefully assembles the evidence for and against, describing the scandals as fairly and dispassionately as he can], rejection of his works, etc.), but the author discusses Eakins death only two pages before the end of the book, hardly enough time to develop the world's slow acceptance of Eakins' genius.
But then I realized that the book itself is Eakins' revenge. Very few people of even the first rank ever have a biography written about them as fine as this one. This book will be read as the classic text for the next one hundred years and it should be read, merely for its quality, by everyone no matter how slim their interest in American painting.