The Coral Necklace, 1904
Oil on canvas, 43 X 31" (109.22 x 78.74 cm.)
Signed, right center
Museum purchase, 958-0-101
), shows the figure frontally and hieratically,
with the severe monochromatic palette and the rhythmic alignment of brass buttons rising
to the attentive face, all suggesting a disciplined military presence. By contrast, the
relaxed pose of Beatrice Fenton in The Coral Necklace, the delicate and almost
elusive play of colors, and her introspective gaze, instead suit the creative meditations
of a young sculptress in Eakins's artistic circle.
Thomas Eakins was assuredly one of America's greatest artists, and at the heart of his accomplishment was the elevation of portraiture to a level equal with the highest precedents of the past. Although we know he admired the masters of seventeenth- century Dutch and Spanish realism from his early years of study in France and Spain, Eakins did not consciously aim in his own later portraiture to emulate directly Diego Velazquez, Frans Hals, or Rembrandt van Rijn. However, his best images achieve a comparable poignancy and power. Born in Philadelphia, he studied there in two disciplines that would shape all of his mature art: anatomy at Jefferson Medical College and art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Reinforced by academic training in Paris with Jean-L6on G6r6me and others during the mid-1860s, this combined sensibility for scientific observation and technical craft resulted in organically understood human figures placed in clear and coherent compositions. Returning to teach at the Academy with a new freshness of vision and directness of approach, Eakins became a popular and influential figure during the 1870s and early 1880s. But his most ambitious early work, The Gross Clinic (1875, Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia), drew severe criticism for its perceived brutal realism, and a decade later, Eakins lost his position running the Academy for a similarly insistent honesty in teaching methods.
Understandably, he increasingly turned inward during his later career, embattled and often lonely. Over time he undertook fewer narrative or group subjects, and eventually none set out of doors. But throughout, the human form and the portrait, explicitly or implicitly, remained the core of his art, for in the figure were always the fundamental elements he cared about: specificity and individuality, character and achievement, and ultimately the triumphant as well as tortured ingredients of the human condition. By means of a resolute self-reliance, Eakins searched himself and those close to him among his family and friends to scrutinize and record unflinchingly the truths of existence before him. Occasionally, he had little sympathy for his sitters, whom he saw as vain, or weak, or lazy, and the results accordingly were dry or in some instances too severe and revealing for the owners to accept. There is much interesting discussion whether he was a finer painter of women or men. Fortunately, the Butler Institute owns compelling examples of each, and the comparisons between them are revealing in the ways Eakins could make use of costume, pose, and coloring to express the distinctions of personality and profession. General George Cadwalader (Fig. 1