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The Revenge of Thomas Eakins [Paperback]

Sidney D. Kirkpatrick
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Feb. 28 2008 Henry Mcbride Series in Modernism and Modernity
Thomas Eakins was misunderstood in life, his brilliant work earned little acclaim, and hidden demons tortured and drove him. Yet the portraits he painted more than a century ago captivate us today, and he is now widely acclaimed as the finest portrait painter our nation has ever produced. This book recounts the artist’s life in fascinating detail, drawing on a treasure trove of Eakins family correspondence and papers that have only recently been discovered.
Never before has Thomas Eakins’s story been told with such drama, clarity, and accuracy. Sidney Kirkpatrick sets the painter’s life and art in the wider context of the changing world he devoted himself to portraying, and he also addresses the artist’s private life—the contradictory impulses, obsessions, and possible psychological illness that fired his work. Kirkpatrick underscores Eakins’s unflinching integrity as an artist and discloses how his profound appreciation of the beauty of the human form was both the source of his greatness and ultimately of his undoing. Nevertheless, the author observes, Eakins has had his “revenge,” inspiring a new generation of realist painters and gaining the recognition that eluded him in life.

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From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Biographer Kirkpatrick brings the cinematic clarity of a documentary filmmaker to this portrait of Thomas Eakins, the controversial Philadelphia portrait artist whose "failure to abide by the artistic trends that defined his times" resulted in work that was richly interesting and highly controversial. Kirkpatrick takes considerable pains to portray the contradictory philosophical moorings and childlike prurience that marked Eakins's eccentric career. Prior to Eakins's resignation from the Pennsylvania Academy amid muddied allegations of impropriety, his students held him-and the capital "E" he would place on canvases in which he saw marked improvement-in great esteem. And though he was a pioneer in the use of photography and a champion of nude modeling (he was "starved for the nude," as one woman who knew him put it), Eakins's stubborn social gracelessness and proclivity for intrigue made his place in the Philadelphia art world "something like that of a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter." Kirkpatrick's ability to suggest, through the use of letters and family anecdotes, that Eakins was aware of-and to a degree, fostered-the Byronic attitude (drafting his own obituary, Eakins wrote, "My honors are misunderstanding, persecution, & neglect, enhanced because unsought") that characterized his career is both brilliant and subtle. But most importantly, Kirkpatrick gives Eakins convincing depth that reminds readers of the ways biography can enhance appreciation of art.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"'... a posthumous, too-long-delayed and entirely deserved critical rehabilitation.' William Packer, Literary Review 'Kirkpatrick presents the most complete biography of Eakins yet published.' Elizabeth Johns, The Art Newspaper 'Kirkpatrick's full-scale biography is well-researched and fluently written. It is particularly strong in its descriptions of the inner workings that were so important to Eakins's life, the Pennsylvania Academy in particular.' Christopher Benfey, New York Review of Books"

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5.0 out of 5 stars Great book on a great artist. Dec 15 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Great book on a great artist. A joy to read about a very complex and interesting artist...definitely has had a huge affect on all artist following.
He make many sacrifices for his art...The writer presents the story well...a pleasure to read. A Keeper!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.9 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another terrific read from Sidney Kirkpatrick April 11 2006
By Dan - Published on
I'm a fan of Sidney Kirkpatrick's writing.

In previous efforts that I've read he has revealed (usually having in fact discovered) amazing true drama from the lives of little known individual heroes in the middle of well-known enormous events; the story of an archeologist who happened upon the largest Pre-Columbian Peruvian art discovery, the story of a disenfranchised marine biologist who took on one of the largest drug dealers in the 1980's cocaine traffic trade, the story of a 75 year old film director who tried to resurrect his career by solving Hollywood's most famous unsolved murder, as well as an amazing biography of the Michael Jordan of psychics- Edgar Cayce. Kirkpatrick has a knack for identifying and tackling great drama and he writes it beautifully to boot.

I knew of Thomas Eakins from his paintings of rowers on the Schuykill. From Kirkpatrick I was more properly introduced to Eakins and learned that he was a fiercely independent genius who was castigated, disgraced and impoverished.

The Revenge of Thomas Eakins is an apt title. Eakins was just far too ahead of his time.

Kirkpatrick's effortless style and attention to detail really drops you right into the mid to late 1800's, comfortably sharing the historical context along with development of Eakins.

I recommend you read this one right away.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well-written, beautifully illustrated biography June 8 2006
By Avid reader - Published on
I highly recommend this well-written, balanced biography of Thomas Eakins. It would be a perfect choice for readers with any level of familiarity with Eakins' paintings. I agree with the other reviewers that the book does an excellent job of placing Eakins' work in its historical context. Eakins emerges as a fascinating personality, and a guy who would have been great to know. In my opinion, Kirkpatrick deals honestly with the controversial aspects of Eakins' character, but without dwelling on them ad nauseum.

I thought that the descriptions of the paintings themselves were especially effective. The book communicated exactly the information I wanted to read about for paintings like The Gross Clinic and Max Schmitt in a Single Scull: the main points of the design, the background and tecnhical details, the dramatic impact, and the pyschological levels. I have read very few biographies of artists that were this helpful.

The book is generously and beautifully illustrated. There are 42 color plates, and each of those paintings is described in detail in the text. There are also a number of drawings, sketches, maps, and photographs (some taken by Eakins, and others of Eakins and his family and friends). The photos in particular (such as the one of Eakins, himself nude, carrying a nude female toward the camera) underscore the independent and controversial aspects of Eakins' character.

This was a very enjoyable read, and a tribute to a great artist.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Revenge is the Book Itself Dec 19 2007
By T. Berner - Published on
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.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Complex Person Portrayed in a Well Done Book Dec 9 2006
By Loves the View - Published on
When I picked up this very well done bio the little I knew about Eakins was the wonderful scull portraits, the shad fishing pictures and that a vague scandal surrounded his name. Now having read almost 500 pages, I want to know even more and there is a lot more to know.

Kirkpatrick covers the whole life, giving balance to each stage. It is a full book. There is no "filler". The research and background knowledge of the author shine forth on every page. The author shows great restraint in sticking to the known facts, otherwise this would be a 1000+ page book!

For instance, Eakins' fixation with the body, down to using mechanical contraptions on dead animals to demonstrate movement to students is factually presented. It is not sensationalized or psychoanalyzed. Similarly, whether Eakins was oblivious to or had discounted the consequences of asking so many females (again and again) to pose nude in this Victorian age is not discussed. The known instances of these invitations and the resulting alienation of those who said no, and the alienation of the friends and families of those that said yes are covered. With this background we learn the known facts of the tragedy of his niece Ella, and student Lillian, and about accusations regarding his sister Margaret. There are some documented opinions of family members, but the author stays with the known record.

No wonder, the self portrait that adorns the cover shows a tortured man with barely restrained sadness and anger.

It's ironic that the lack of appreciation for Eakin's works served to maintain the integrity of the collection for future generations. It's interesting that due to the nondescript Charles Bregler's collecting and acquiring memorabilia of his beloved teacher, today's researchers have a large collection of personal letters, photos and sketches to work with.

This is a very readable book. It is rich in plates and photographs that illuminate the text. I am ready for another biography to take on the "whys" of this remarkable life.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Read Oct. 12 2006
By Cedes - Published on
I find all of Kirkpatrick's books to be great reads. They combine impeccable scholarship with elegant style and profound insight. As I am interested in art, I found this one to be especially powerful -- the first major biography of Eakins that brings this enigmatic man into focus for me. Kirkpatrick has filled in the puzzling gaps in Eakins's life and brought new and unexpected meaning to Eakins's artistic and personal struggles against the conservative art establishment in Philadelphia that denied him recognition in his lifetime.
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