How Portraiture Displays Desire

Read about the debate surrounding Thomas Eakins’ paintings and his sexuality

Swimming Hole - Study.jpg
Study for The Swimming Hole. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966

The work of Thomas Eakins acutely poses the question of the implication of same-sex desire prior to the advent of “homosexuality” as an available category. Resistant to the reigning hypocrisies of his day, and as a result quite controversial, Eakins has long fed a debate about the explicit homoeroticism of his art, and the obvious connection, so easy to draw, between that homoerotism and our understanding of his own sexuality. But how can we discuss Eakins’s sexuality in advance of the very words that convey it? A number of paintings, such as his famous Swimming Hole, beg the question. But as one Eakins scholar notes, such critical precision carries a substantial danger:

In other words, the risk in arguing that it is an anachronism to say Eakins was gay is that we will support desexualizing and degaying his work in every context. Eakins’s work, however, in every sense of the word, is infused with the sexual. . . . It is entirely possible to place Eakins and The Swimming Hole, for instance, near the beginning of a homoerotic (and even homosexual) visual tradition in American art.

The fact that the literature on Eakins has long had to dance around the “problem” of sexuality in the treatment of this dean of American painters is itself quite revealing. There has been much about Eakins that his biographers and critics have had to work hard to disavow, long before they were disavowing the sexuality of other artists, long before sexuality itself was generally framed as an operative “problem.” In both his life and his art, Eakins has had a certain “taint” that writers once felt forced to confront, if only to dismiss its implications. Lloyd Goodrich, a dominant Eakins scholar of the twentieth century, was emblematic in this regard. Writing in 1982 for the National Gallery of Art, he confronts the question of Eakins’s sexuality, only to quash it:

The companionship of Eakins and [his colleague Samuel] Murray meant much to both of them. The suggestion has been made that the relation was a homosexual one. There is no need to get involved in moral issues about this; it is an interesting question that deserves consideration. There is of course no factual evidence. None of Eakins’ friends, pupils, and sitters with whom I talked in the 1930s, several of whom were entirely frank about sexual matters, mentioned homosexuality; on the contrary, the more critical accused him of too much sexuality with regard to women. His intense interest in the female nude and his persistent habit of asking women to pose nude for him have been detailed. As to his art, he painted many portraits of women, almost as many as of men, and they are among his most sympathetic portraits. . . .

Without being so rash as to try to define homosexuality in art, it does seem to me that in modern times (not Greece or the Renaissance) the art of homosexuals tends to show certain qualities that are conspicuously absent in Eakins’: sophistication, wit, elegance, fantasy, satire, decorative values. And specifically, an attraction toward the male more than the female, and a tendency to idealize the male face and figure. I do not perceive any of these characteristics in Eakins’ work.

There is no need to underline the crude stereotyping in this formulation, merely noting its energetic, if to our ears rather tinny, attempt to distance Eakins from what apparently certainly looks like, sounds like, and acts like homosexuality. Otherwise, why bring it up? Of real interest is Goodrich’s claim of Eakins’s excessive heterosexuality, the widely held perception that “the more critical accused him of too much sexuality with regard to women.” As we’ll see, there is a surprising parallel between Eakins’s putative excess with women and his manifest interest in the male nude.

Lately, as the scholarship on Eakins and sexuality has grown in scale, critical sophistication, and insistence, instances of active disavowal like Goodrich’s have given way to a now-blanketing silence. As a result, large-scale scholarly exhibitions like the massive 2001 Eakins exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Philadelphia Museum of Art utterly ignored what is now more than twenty years of bibliography on Eakins and sexuality, a willful, critical blindness that would be nearly impossible with regard to any other pressing scholarly debate. But telling though the transition from anxious disavowal to utter silence, Eakins’s sexuality keeps looming. In his review of the 2001 Eakins retrospective, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl evocatively writes that despite the fact that the “catalogue essays are quaintly reticent about Eakins’s sexuality . . . pansexual heat glowed in dim rooms that smelled of dust and varnish.”

“Pansexual heat” is a lovely attempt to evade the problem of having to label Eakins’s sexuality, but it does lack something in terms of historical specificity, which a new generation of Eakins scholars are working hard to rectify. In general these scholars, and the work of Jennifer Doyle is exemplary in this regard, characterize Eakins as a committed sexual dissident. Mobilizing both famous biographical incidents like his firing from the Pennsylvania Academy in 1886 for removing the loincloth of a live male model in an all-female life-drawing class, as well as close readings of his paintings, these scholars point up Eakins’s continuous refusal of appropriate social behavior, especially with regard to the relation between the genders—and the scandals this caused—as emblematic of his larger resistance to the social norms governing our bodies.

Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture

Hide/Seek traces the defining presence of same-sex desire in American portraiture through a seductive selection of more than 140 full-color illustrations, drawings, and portraits from leading American artists.

A Philadelphia businessman and patron of the arts, Edward Hornor Coates, commissioned Swimming from Eakins in 1884. (The painting also goes by the popular title The Swimming Hole.) A member of the board and eventual president of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Coates was in a delicate position when Eakins showed him the completed painting, which hung in the academy as of October 1885 with Coates listed as the owner. Eakins was without a doubt a star at the academy, but already stormclouds were gathering over his reputation. A month later, in a four-page letter that was an elaborately kind attempt to soften the blow, Coates rejected Swimming and selected another painting from Eakins, claiming that “the present canvas is to me admirable in many ways but I am inclined to believe that some of the pictures you have are even more representative. . . .

You must not suppose from this that I depreciate the present work—such is not the case.” When the loincloth incident occurred a month after the letter was sent, Eakins’s dismissal from the Pennsylvania Academy was all but sealed.

The Swimming Hole or The Swimmers (1884–1885). Oil on canvas. Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

It is tempting to contravene Coates and note how “representative” Swimming actually is. After all, the painting, like the loincloth incident, directly implicates Eakins in what is at best a troubled relationship to notions of sexual propriety. A photographic study for the painting, Eakins’s Students atThe Swimming Hole“ retains the power to disturb, not only as an image of a teacher photographing his students in the nude, but more broadly for the blurring of the distinction between model and artist, representation and representer. As Doyle pointedly asks, “How many of us, though, would really be comfortable hanging in our office a painting like The Swimming Hole, executed by a colleague who appeared in the painting along with a number of his and our own students, all naked, of the same sex, and suggestively posed?” Of course, images like the Swimming Hole photogragh were hardly unprecedented, and we can see from artist Thomas Anshutz’s roughly contemporaneous images a similar interest in swimming, water holes, and the male nudity that this environment both justifies and naturalizes. But Anshutz, in keeping with the norms governing the relation between the clothed and the naked, maintains a comforting distinction in photographing these other men, youths, and boys. They are his subjects, distanced from the photographer, and unlike Eakins, Anshutz doesn’t trouble that social hierarchy by including himself among them.

But in Swimming, Eakins paints himself as the figure in the water on the right, underscoring, even more than in his photographic studies of the composition, his fraught role as a participant observer. Many have noted the profound affinities between this painting and Walt Whitman’s eleventh poem in Leaves of Grass. That poem, familiarly called “The Twenty-Eight Young Men,” was first published in 1855. Some forty years later Eakins would have certainly known it, for he knew the poet and his work quite well. Indeed, Eakins painted and photographed Whitman several times  and was ultimately chosen for the honor of being a pallbearer at his funeral.

Thomas Eakins took this photograph of Walt Whitman (1818–1892) a year before the poet’s death. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Eakins took this photograph of Walt Whitman (1818–1892) a year before the poet’s death. Aged and fragile, Whitman had become a skeptic about the course of American society, not least because of the persecution he suffered as the author of what many called that “immoral book,” Leaves of Grass. Nonetheless, Whitman’s poems endured as a testament both to artistic innovation and to a vision of American democracy as capacious and all-embracing. Especially as society became more stratified, industry imposed the division of labor, and the law parsed gender differences, Whitman’s evocation of a transcendental republic rooted in the physical intermingling of free individuals in both same and different-sex relationships was an inspiring counterpoint that would animate American culture into the new century. Borrowing categories from phrenology, Whitman labeled this democracy of desire “adhesive,” which was the capacity to extend true friendship, as opposed to “amative,” which instead signified traditional notions of love. Whitman’s refusal to accept the existence of boundaries and limits on the body and its capacities, physical and emotional, is the most radical statement ever of American individualism.

In a nutshell, the problem with all these attempts to adjudicate Eakins’s sexuality is that they employ a homo/hetero binary to address an artist working at precisely the moment when these categories were only first emerging. But if we cannot use our own terms like homosexual, and we refuse to ignore or devalue the evident same-sexual nonconformity that animated both Eakins and his work, what vocabulary can we use? As Doyle and others have persuasively argued, period-specific constructions of sexual nonconformity would most centrally turn on the potential for an untroubled indulgence in the kind of nonreproductive, pleasureinducing sexuality summarized under the term “lust.” Eakins famously recounted stripping naked in front of a female student in his office to show her how his pelvis worked; he expected male and female students to pose naked for one another, and for him; he groped his models, arguing that he learned as much from touching their nude bodies as from seeing and photographing them. Not surprisingly, his claim to have only the highest of intentions fell on deaf ears.

It was the charge of lust that haunted and occasionally derailed Eakins’s career. At the close of the nineteenth century, sexuality that was neither marital nor reproductive was deemed a violation of the proper purposes of our sexual being, and as we’ve seen, Eakins was as controversial for his intense relationships with women, as with men. In the nineteenth-century attitudes toward sexual pleasures, there would be but a small leap from sexual pleasure with females with whom one was not married to homosexuality, for neither was marital and procreative. Both acts would both have been framed as lustful, and thereby had more in common with each other than they had with marital relations.

Since Eakins’s pedagogy made him look, as he knew well himself, both predatory and perverse, why did he do it? While it’s still tempting to assign Eakins a motive in keeping with the scandalmongers of his day, from another perspective, his loud protests that realist art demanded a scientific relationship to the body can be viewed as an attempt to rescue the studio—and his art in general—from the very prurience he was accused of indulging. It was no secret that live models were generally not of the sort students would want to invite home, hired as they so often were from brothels. By posing nude in front of his students and having them pose before each other, Eakins cultivated a realist commune where dedication to the body in its naked form knew no other motives. Here, his active participation in the communal posing was actually evidence that his relationship to nudity was precisely not voyeuristic. But paradoxically, this very denial of erotic interest spawned intense speculations about his eroticism, speculation that parallels the way we now seek to know Eakins’s “real” sexuality.

In contrast to other painters of his day, Eakins’s involvement with loaded subject matter always seemed to come back to him, referencing his life, his perspective, and his personal relationships in one sense or another. As such, his work is made autobiographical, even when the subject is seemingly far removed from the artist himself. For example, we know a lot about Eakins’s relationship to the boxer he depicted in Salutat. Billy Smith, twenty-two years old when he first posed for Eakins, fought as a featherweight under the name Turkey Point Billy Smith. The two men became lifelong friends, and according to Gordon Hendricks, Smith regularly visited and massaged the ailing, elderly artist, earning the gratitude of Eakins’s wife and friends. Yet the lightly built Smith was an unlikely star of a boxing picture that itself was the obverse of what a boxing picture normally would be. Less than 120 pounds, more a boy than a man, Smith is not an obvious representative of the pugilistic tradition. He is also notably not boxing. Painted from the rear in scanty boxing trunks, Smith was transposed by Eakins from an emblem of masculine aggression to the passive object of display. In the all-male environs of a boxing match—women were not allowed entrance—men were always on display for other men, but the brutality of the sport banished any untoward resonances to that fact. Here, absent the competition, which normally permits the visual consumption of the lithe bodies of well-built young men, boxing succumbs transparently to the homosocial gaze. In Salutat, men of all sorts stare at Billy, and we stare at them, and at him, and at them staring at him. More curious still, this ephebic youth faces away from us, a portrait from the rear, the white orbs of his naked buttocks transformed into the still center of a remarkably coherent spiral of sight lines.

Scene depicting a young wrestler entering the wrestling ring, his right hand raised in a salute to the crowd. Phillips Academy Addison Gallery of American Art; Andover, Massachusetts
As with Swimming and The Gross Clinic, in Salutat Eakins also found a subject that made the visual contemplation of the young male body socially acceptable. Like Whitman’s paean to a particular vision of America, a democracy of desire that respected neither limits nor boundaries, Eakins’s work is neither an evocation of a singular erotic perspective nor a missive to the likeminded. How could it be when the parameters of that identity had yet to even emerge? Rather, like Whitman, Eakins generalizes desire, implicating the viewer as he implicated himself in a dissident eroticism that recognizes beauty in the male body as the female, and more dangerously still, recognizes the capacity for that body to incite desire without regard to gender.

Hide / Seek is available from Smithsonian Books. Visit Smithsonian Books’ website to learn more about its publications and a full list of titles. 

Excerpt condensed for print from Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture by Jonathan Katz and David C. Ward © 2010 Smithsonian Institution