Thomas Eakins (1844-1916, American) is considered to be one of the most important artists in American history. A realist painter, photographer, sculptor and teacher, his works span from the early 1870’s until around 1910 when his health declined. Most of his portraits are of his friends and acquaintances who lived in his hometown of Philadelphia.
In 1861, Eakins studied drawing and anatomy at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and studied dissection from 1864-65; he briefly considered becoming a surgeon. Eakins traveled to Europe from 1866-1870 and studied under Jean-Léon Gérôme. While at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, he was not at all influenced by the Impressionist movement, and instead remained focused on realism. After his return from Europe, Eakins concentrated on painting rowing scenes. He sold his first painting in 1870, The Sculler, and never went back to painting rowing scenes again. In 1871, he painted Home Scene where we see a woman at a piano with a barely visible black and white cat at her side, its tail up in an attitude of wanting attention. His first large scale portrait entitled, Kathrin shows Kathrin Crowell ,Eakin’s fiancé, in dim light playing with a kitten on her lap, a symbol of sensuality and femininity. The Chess Players includes a cat on the right hand side of the painting, perhaps simply a symbol of domesticity. The painting is in actuality a tribute to his father and father figures in his life. The painting within the painting is an acknowledgement of thanks to his teacher Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Eakins’ teaching career was filled with controversy in Victorian Philadelphia, and he was ultimately forced to resign in 1886 for removing the loincloth of a male model in a class where female students were present. Even so, he continued to teach until 1898.
He was an innovative artist working with motion photography. Eakins introduced photography into the American art studio. Influenced by the photography of Eadweard Muybridge of horses in motion (even though Muybridge had taken photographs of cats in motion), he became interested in using the camera to capture sequential movement. He used this method to paint horses from the photographs, but never cats. Some of his photographs of cats include his student Amelia Van Buren.
Because of his controversial life and his insistence upon models posing completely nude, his works received little if any recognition during his lifetime.