Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) was at once the most powerful and the most problematic American painter of his generation. In his lifetime he was also one of the most isolated. Outside a small circle of friends, family, students, and acolytes in the Philadelphia of his day, his art seems not to have elicited a very wide response. Historians have tended—a little too eagerly perhaps—to attribute this public resistance to Eakins’s art to the genteel taste of the day, a taste that Eakins famously opposed. Yet I wonder if the spell cast by the genteel tradition entirely accounts for Eakins’s failure to win a public for his art in his lifetime. For even today, when he is everywhere acclaimed as an American classic and generally thought to be the greatest American painter to emerge from the nineteenth century, his art remains curiously isolated.

No American painter in this century has found anything in it to build upon...


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