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Thomas Eakins

Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic & The Swimming Hole

For the Material Museum Culture Exhibit I was given the task of writing about Thomas Eakins paintings which are The Gross Clinic and The Swimming Hole. First, I would like to give a brief summary of Thomas Eakins so the readers can know his background and where his artwork ideologies may have come from.

Thomas Eakins was born in 1844 and died in 1916. His paintings were mostly based on portraits rather than abstract shapes or any other genre. Besides that, Eakins was a teacher at Philadelphia’s Academy of the Arts. But what Americans and future artists revere Eakins for is his portraits. Thomas Eakins potraits categorizes him as the founder of American Realism(Thomas Eakins’ Swimming Picture 1). However, during his time Eakins was highly criticized for his admiration of the human anatomy; something he expresses in his portraits. Due to this, his sexuality was up in the air. Yet, one this is certain, Eakins portraits involve his personal life (Erwin 655-664). This will be most evident as we take a look into The Gross Clinic painting.


This painting was conducted during Eakin’s stay at the Jefferson Medical College in 1874. During this time, Dr. Gross is the Chair of Surgery for the school and was asked by Eakins if it was possible that he make a portrait of Gross conducting a typical surgical lesson. In the portrait one can see how Dr. Gross standing while all the nurses and clerks and students surround him. They can be identified because they are wearing the traditional business garment color which is black. Then on the left hand side of Dr. Gross, one can see the mother who is covering her eyes dressed in a black veil. According to historians, the feel as though the mother is being melodramatic since this operation is going to save her child’s life. However, the vividness of the operation is often criticized as being “too realistic to be in display in polite Victorian society” (Jefferson 1). Then if one analyzes the doctor, one can see that Eakins thought the doctor as a hero. Dr. Gross stands above everyone and then has a light color contrasts that occur around his face as though he is looking up towards heaven. This is also evident in how the Doctor is the most detailed figure in the portrait whereas the people in the seats and those below him are almost like shadows.

Now I shall focus on the portrait of the Swimming Hole.

This portrait of the swimming hole represents Thomas Eakins and five other students near a creek located in Philadelphia. Because of this portrait, Eakins was told to leave his study because this was such an outrage in Victorian society. Eakins tried to show this portrait at an Exhibition in 1885 and tried to show it but instead the person ahead of the viewing returned it to Whitman for something that was less controversial. Now if we take a more artistic look at the painting, it is interesting to note that Eakins included himself in the portrait. Therefore, it is safe to say that Eakins feels as though the action of being ‘naked’ is not wrong. Rather, Eakins glorifies it and even accepts the fact that all the people who are naked are men. It is as though he is making a statement about homosexuality as well. In that time period, homosexuality was not something that was considered normal but rather a sin during those times when the Protestant Revolution was at its peak (Barry 1).

Yet these two things connect to Whitman because Whitman himself is obsessed with the human anatomy as well. Due to their abnormal admiration for the human physical body, both people were considered outcasts in their society since that does not go well with regular Victorian society. Beyond that, I saw in Whitman’s writing something similar to that of Thomas Eakins’ swimming hole portrait. The passage is called a Sunbath-Nakedness.

“I slowly hobble down these country lanes and across fields, in the good air

as I sit here in solitude with Nature…I merge myself in the scene, in the perfect day

Hovering over the clear brook water…As I walk’d slowly over the grass,

the sun shown out enough to show the shadow moving with me …

Nature was naked and I was also…

Sweet, sane, still Nakedness in Nature! ah if poor, sick, prurient

humanity in cities might really know you once more! Is not

nakedness then indecent? No, not inherently…It is your thought ,

your sophistication, your fear, your respectability, that is

indecent. There comes moods when these cloths of ours are not

only too irksome to wear, but are themselves


As you can see, like Eakins, Whitman does not think that being naked is a taboo. Rather, he thinks it is the best way for people to get back to their true humble selves. One can see this as he asks a rhetorical question, “Is not nakedness indecent?” From him asking that, the reader knows that he believes that society just created nakedness to be so wrong. Rather, Whitman says “it is your thought, your sophistication, your fear, your respectability, that is indecent” From this, it is evident that people of power and just pure academics were making nakedness such a horrible thing. Whitman somewhat connects to the bible because Adam and Eve were in the garden naked and until they ate from the tree of knowledge they knew what they were doing was sin. Yet, before that it was innocent for them to be naked so that parallels to what Whitman is saying. Overall, this directly related to Whitman because like Eakins, he wants to be closer to nature and go against the society norms that thinks that being nude is so wrong.

Works Cited

Barry, Claire M. “Thomas Eakins’ “The Swimming Hole”” Web.

Erwin, Robert “Who Was Thomas Eakins?.” Antioch Review 66.4 (2008): 655-664. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 18 Oct. 2009.

“Thomas Eakins’s swimming picture.” American Artist (VNU eMedia, Inc.) 60.644 (1996): 8. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 18 Oct. 2009.

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