Hundreds call for reckoning with American artist Thomas Eakins’s troubling legacy

Eakins, who is celebrated far and wide in his native Philadelphia, was embroiled in controversy during his lifetime and made disturbing photos of young girls

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Thomas Eakins, Self-portrait (1902) National Academy of Design, via Wikimedia

Thomas Eakins, Self-portrait (1902) National Academy of Design, via Wikimedia

Until this past summer the publicly available digital collections of Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) included a disturbing photograph of a nude Black girl reclining on a couch. The photo, which has since been taken off PAFA’s website and is only available on request for research purposes due to its “sensitive nature”, was taken around 1882 by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), one of Philadelphia’s most celebrated artists. Now, more than 200 artists, arts workers, philanthropists and others have signed an open letter calling on Philadelphia’s municipal government, PAFA and other institutions in the city to “formally cease and desist their love affair with Thomas Eakins” by removing public tributes to him and telling a fuller account of his actions, including the creation of exploitative images like African-American girl nude, reclining on couch and a companion image in which the young girl faces away from the camera.

“Remove the name Thomas Eakins from all landmarks. It is a privilege to be recognized by your community, not a right. Eakins has forfeited this consideration,” the letter reads in part. “Include a full account of Thomas Eakins in all historic and art materials and why his name is removed from public statues and tributes.” Signatories include the artists JaTovia Gary and Xaviera Simmons, the Guerrilla Girls collective and the scholar Fred Moten.

The campaign is being led by artist and educator Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter, who wrote an op-ed published by the Philadelphia Inquirer in October decrying the city’s veneration of Eakins despite evidence of his abusive and exploitative behaviour. “What’s at stake here is people’s unwillingness to reckon with these archives of violence,” Baxter says. “Even in his day, people were distancing themselves from Eakins.”

In an attempt to do some of the reparative work she feels the city and its art institutions have failed to do, Baxter created Consecration to Mary (2021), a series of photographic works developed using historical processes in which she shields and protects the girl in Eakins’s photographs of the unnamed Black girl. The series was included in the group exhibition The Collective: Chosen Family at New York’s Martos Gallery earlier this year and will go on view at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio when it presents curator Nicole R. Fleetwood’s exhibition Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration in April 2022.

Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter, Consecration to Mary (2021) Courtesy the artist

“It’s a difficult photograph for people to engage with, so my task was to make it something that people could actually look at, reimagining those moments as they should’ve been, safe and protected,” says Baxter. She approached PAFA this past summer about obtaining a high-quality image of the photo she could work from, but says she was frustrated by the institution’s slowness and unwillingness to include her in the processes it initiated in response. “This was a sexual predator with documentation so bad, PAFA made him resign—they didn’t want anything to do with him when he was at the school.”

In 1886, PAFA forced Eakins to resign from his teaching position after he pulled a male model’s loincloth off in front of a drawing class. Art historian Henry Adams’s 2005 biography Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist details patterns of sexual harassment and emotional abuse, and allegations including that Eakins’s niece committed suicide after he seduced her.

“PAFA supports efforts to offer counternarratives to America’s traumatic histories,” a spokesperson for the institution said in a statement. “We believe this is a vital learning moment for our wider community. We have already initiated this learning with a program held for our students earlier this month, and we are in process of setting up public programs with key visiting scholars, planned for the spring. We invite our civic and artistic colleagues to join us in this process.”

In Baxter’s view PAFA has failed to include her and her work in that process, including an event for the art school’s students on December 1, “The Ethics of Archives”, which was framed as a direct response to her advocacy but did not include her as a participant. Among other topics that event, led by two members of the school’s liberal arts faculty, sought “to critically reflect on and unpack our responsibilities to living communities”.

“I guess that doesn’t include the artist who worked so hard to reckon with this and the Black community,” Baxter says. “We are the ones who were most hurt by this discovery and their inaction.”

Today Eakins is revered throughout Philadelphia and its art institutions. Eakins’s former home and studio at 1729 Mount Vernon Street was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965 (it now houses public art non-profit Mural Arts Philadelphia). The large landscaped traffic island in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), which hosts the city’s annual celebration on the 4 July national holiday, is named Eakins Oval.

PAFA’s collection includes more than 850 of his works spanning photography, drawings and paintings. One of the star attractions at the PMA is his cinematic rendering of a late-19th century operating theatre, The Gross Clinic (1875), which the museum and PAFA kept in Philadelphia only after a frenzied fundraising campaign in 2008 that involved deaccessioning works from their collections in order to help raise the $68m that the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and the Crystal Bridges Museum had offered to acquire the painting.

In some circles Gross Clinic is considered one of the greatest American paintings ever made, but the signatories of this month’s letter argue that any estimation of that canvas must also reckon with Eakins’s actions and disturbing photographs like African-American girl nude, reclining on couch. They are calling for those photos to be transferred to an African American institution and demanding “a formal apology directly addressing the Black Community”.

In late 2017, PAFA opted to keep an exhibition of Chuck Close photographs on view after allegations of sexual misconduct against the artist came to light. Rather than take Close’s works down, the institution held a community forum and organized a pop-up exhibition of artworks addressing issues of power and gender.

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