Thomas Eakins: Gay or Not?

Both the high school and college US history class I am currently teaching are studying the Gilded Age.  This means that the realist painter Thomas Eakins came up in my lectures. Since I know of his works, especially The Swimming Hole above, I began to wonder about his sexuality.  His paintings are certainly homoerotic, so was he gay, bisexual, or heterosexual.  I did an internet search to see what I could find. 

Eakins was married, but from my research it seems that his sexuality remains a matter of gossip even today. The males in his paintings, close friendship with Walt Whitman, stories from men who claimed advances, and belief that a naked woman was the most beautiful form in nature—‘except for a naked man’—give some reason to pause (Eakins also photographed and painted nude ladies).  His brother-in-law, Frank Stephens, prompted even more allegations by accusing him of incest. While the accusations of incest were never proved, the charge itself was enough to have Eakins removed from a Philadelphia art club. Some have speculated that Eakins had a long-term love affair with another former student, Samuel Murray, who was later a well-known sculptor and became Eakins’ devoted nurse in his last days.  

Always ingenious, Eakins devised endless ways to put naked or nearly naked people in his pictures. He painted a brutally realistic crucifixion scene; a group of men naked at a swimming hole; a sculptor in his studio with a young female model (and chaperone); and classical figures in a meadow, with and without their togas. On two occasions he depicted patients stretched out under a surgeon’s knife, and throughout his career he painted thinly clad male athletes in the heat of competition.

Eakins constantly strived to create convincing illusions, and long before it was fashionable, he used photographs to further his goal. He often succeeded too well. In 1876, Eakins portrayed world-famous surgeon Samuel Gross in the midst of an operation, and submitted the portrait for the art display at the United States Centennial Exhibition. But the judges saw simply a bloody document and sent the painting to a hall for medical instruments. Today many people consider “The Gross Clinic” the finest painting Eakins ever made.

About 10 years later, Eakins presented an idyllic scene of men swimming in the river for one of his most important patrons, but the patron politely sent it back, asking for a painting that he could donate to an art museum someday.

Now “The Swimming Hole” is one of Eakins’ best known and most popular images. It is a horizontal canvas, smaller than your sofa is long, showing six naked men and a big red dog, swimming in a river on a sunny day. One of them appears to be Eakins himself.

Viewers must have always seen that it expressed great pleasure in male companionship. These days, when homosexuality is an open subject, the painting, and the photographs that show the same setting and subjects, appear to indicate Eakins’ own sexual preference. Many call him one of the first gay artists in America.  Is this a fair assessment? Probably not.  I don’t know whether Thomas Eakins was gay or not, but I’m sure he would be dismayed by all this acclaim. Because more than anything else, Eakins wanted his art to make people uncomfortable, even angry.

As a teacher, Eakins demanded that his students draw and paint nude models, and he even asked the students to pose nude for one another. But that does not explain why he pulled the loin cloth off a male model to show a room full of female students the shape of a male torso. Or why when a female student, Amelia Van Buren, asked about the movement of the pelvis, Eakins invited her to his studio, where he undressed and “gave her the explanation as I could not have done by words only”.  It does explain why a public scandal flared, and why he got fired.

A few years after that, Eakins again made his students pose for photographs, though they were just the young sons and daughters of his brother-in-law, Will MacDowell. But why did he keep on making photographs after MacDowell asked him to quit? The incident caused a permanent break, and Eakins was banned from seeing the children, or visiting their family again.

These are just a few of many incidents in which Eakins’ apparent devotion to principle outweighed his commitment to his students, his job, his patrons and even his family.

There are other troubling stories. Eakins chose to make a portrait of Louis Kenton, the man who married his wife’s sister and beat her so badly she left him. Eerily, the painting is one of his best. On another occasion, a student who posed for her portrait publicly claimed that Eakins had promised to leave his wife and marry her. (The portrait was not finished.) Another young female student died of a suicide, though no one ever established a clear connection between the art lessons and her death wish.

Eventually, the American public came to accept realistic painting. Eakins was rehabilitated for history, and since the 1930s, he has been known as a modern rebel, ahead of his prudish time.

But his work continued to raise problems. There were all those nude photographs. Why did he do it? Many paintings of many subjects looked too photographic. Was he cheating somehow? There were portraits of women who looked intelligent and miserable. There were men who looked like objects of desire.

At last, in our new century, we’ve grown so tolerant of ambiguity, and photography, that the uneasiness is gone. The photographs are no longer a cheat, they look charming, and we enjoy the matching game, searching out the pose he stole and put in a painting. His naked male friends are almost sweet, as they stand on the river bank, posing like Greek gods. We don’t flinch when we discover that his wife Susan was content to play along, posing nude in the studio, and outdoors with his horse. We don’t mind that Eakins posed nude himself, and we see plenty of him, front and back. The scandal makes good gossip, and all the tired women could so easily be our mothers, or our friends.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

2 responses to “Thomas Eakins: Gay or Not?

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