July 25, 2011

Thomas Eakins and Walt Whitman

Thomas Eakins was born in Philadelphia on July 25, 1844. He later became a painter and photographer. In the spring of 1887, he met the aging poet Walt Whitman in Camden, New Jersey. The two were kindred spirits, though the painter was a quarter century younger than the poet. Both threw aside conventions in their specific art form and attempted truly to represent reality. As Whitman said, "I never... knew [but] one artist, and that's Tom Eakins, who could resist the temptation to see what they think ought to be, rather than what is."

Eakins created several images of Whitman, both in paint and in photography (the subject of one of Eakins's nude photographs may or may not be Whitman as well — and that's not a euphemism, so clicker of links beware). Of his most famous image of Whitman, Eakins later noted: "I began in the usual ways but soon found that the ordinary methods wouldn't do — that technique, rules and traditions would have to be thrown aside; that before all else, he was to be treated as a man."

*I am indebted to the book Portrait: Life of Thomas Eakins (2006) by William S. McFeely.

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