Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Thomas Eakins, one of the country’s foremost painters, was probably photographed more often – and in more ways­ – than any other nineteenth century American artist. In 1985, the Pennsylvania Acad­emy of the Fine Arts, founded in Philadelphia in 1805, ac­quired a large collection of photographs, manuscripts, and works of art relating to Thomas Eakins. Saved first by his wife, Susan Macdowell Eakins, and later by her friend, a student and admirer of Eakins, Charles Bregler (1868- 1958), this cache – literally a treasure trove – is the largest body of original Eakins materi­als in existence. The collection contains more than fifty photo­graphs of the artist that depict Jilin working and relaxing, at home, and in his studio, throughout his lifetime.

Until acquired by the Penn­sylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Charles Bregler Col­lection was the last, largely unexplored collection of signif­icant objects, memorabilia, and ephemera – not to men­tion photographs – pertaining to the artist. The acquisition of this accumulation, now for­mally called the Charles Bregler Collection, was one of the most exciting events in American art scholarship and collecting to have occurred in decades. Art historians and researchers anxiously waited nearly three decades for the release of the more than one thousand items, which in­cludes twenty-nine paintings, twelve pieces of sculpture, two hundred and sixty-one draw­ings, three hundred and fifty documents, and more than five hundred vintage photographs by Eakins. The collec­tion also contains pieces pertaining to Eakins’ small circle, including his father, his wife, his sister-in-law Eliza­beth Macdowell Kenton, as wen as friends and students: Charles Fussell, Frederick Gutekunst, David Wilson Jordan, Henri Marceau, Sam­uel Murray, William O’Donovan, Amelia Van Buren, Eva Watson (Schutze), Carl Von Rapp, and Bryan Wall.

After her husband’s death in 1916, Susan Macdowell Eakins lovingly saved every piece of material she owned relating to him and his work. Later, much of this material came into the possession of Charles Bregler, and he be­came, as a friend aptly put it, “the keeper of the flame” in his fervent commitment to preserve the Eakins memora­bilia for posterity. Following Susan’s death in 1938, her executors and family author­ized Bregler to examine the Eakins residence at 1729 Mount Vernon Street and retrieve whatever remained in the house. Bregler came away with a sizable collection of paintings, drawings, sketches, photographs, and papers, which he added to his accu­mulation of Eakins memorabil­ia acquired during the lifetimes of Thomas and Susan Eakins. Once in Bregler’s hands, the collection was fiercely guarded; upon his demise in 1958 the material became virtu­ally inaccessible until its acqui­sition by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Thomas Eakins was born in Philadelphia in 1844. His fa­ther, Benjamin, a respected teacher of penmanship and inscriber of exquisitely deco­rated documents, encouraged his aspirations to become an artist, and financed his four years of study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. After his return from France, Eakins spent the rest of his career in Philadelphia, eventually estab­lishing an indisputable reputa­tion as one of America’s most competent and insightful portrait painters. Today, how­ever, Thomas Eakins is equally famous for his genre scenes, such as the depictions of the muscular scullers on the Schuylkill River and his por­trayals of medical scenes such as The Agnew Clinic and The Gross Clinic. These subjects, and his many spellbinding likenesses, including his 1888 portrait of poet Walt Whitman, have established his standing in the ranks of America’s great­est painters (see “And who is Eakins?” by David Pacchioli in the fall 1989 edition of this magazine).

A teacher who profoundly influenced scores of students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Philadel­phia Arts Students’ League, Drexel Institute, and the National Academy of Design in New York, Eakins, known – if not feared – for his forceful personality, possessed a strong will and ego, and left a lasting impression on all who met him. Many of his pupils, such as John Laurie Wallace, Sam­uel Murray, and Thomas An­shutz, virtually worshipped him, so it is no surprise to find him so often photographed.

Eakins, himself a photogra­pher, frequently used the medium to produce portraits of family and friends, or stud­ies for paintings, lectures and demonstrations. Photography eventually became an integral part of his teaching method, and many of his famous im­ages resulted from studio projects. Among his friends were numerous Philadelphia photographic professionals, including his wife, who was both a painter and photogra­pher. Since Thomas and Susan Eakins specialized in portrai­ture, capturing such images on film was a frequent and engaging activity.

A tally of all known photo­graphs of Thomas Eakins reveals that he was photo­graphed at least seventy-five times. Only about twenty-five percent are studio portraits by professional photographers; the balance are informal pho­tographs, but very few include the photographers’ identities. In addition, Eakins was photo­graphed on numerous occa­sions as part of a planned series of figure studies, such as the famous “Naked Series.” The existence of these many Eakins photographs suggests that he must have, at least tacitly, encouraged others to photograph him. He was evi­dently at ease in front of a camera.

Thomas Eakins used profes­sionally made portraits of himself in several ways, one of which was the popular cartes de visite, presented to friends and relatives, just as “wallet size” versions of school photographs are exchanged today. These small, inexpensive pho­tographic cards were enor­mously popular in the 1870s and 1880s, and the Pennsylva­nia Academy’s collection in­cludes more than fifty which portray Eakins and his family, friends and students. Even at the outset of his career as a painter and teacher, Eakins anticipated the need for formal portraits to illustrate articles and catalogues about his work.

In 1879 Eakins sat for Frederick Gutekunst, one of Phila­delphia’s most famous portrait photographers. The Pennsyl­vania Academy of the Fine Arts owns negatives and many prints from this session, in which at least five poses were taken. (Susan Eakins’ inscrip­tion on one of the images provides the date.) The many prints and various poses in this group of pictures suggest that Eakins was optimistic that his future success would re­quire a “publishable” image. Nine negatives taken during an informal, backyard portrait session held about 1882 also imply that Eakins himself experimented with the format of the studio portrait.

Eakins began to instruct art students at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1873, and rose to be Director of Instruction and a board member. His insis­tence that students study human anatomy – necessarily from nude models – drew harsh criticism from the par­ents of several students, as well as the public. In 1886, the board pressured Eakins to resign and the wound never healed. He was later remem­bered for his bitter comment, “Respectability in art is appall­ing.” In the decade following his resignation from the Penn­sylvania Academy, he had little need for formal portraits.

An 1893 photograph by Frederick Gutekunst is the only formal portrait surviving from the decade. Probably the best known image of the artist, it documents his appearance at the time of his lectures for the Philadelphia Arts Students’ League and the National Acad­emy of Design in New York. With the suspension of his teaching, lecturing, and other public connections during the closing decade of the nine­teenth century, Eakins em­barked on a flurry of artistic projects. Lucrative sculptural commissions consumed his attention until about 1895, after which his output of por­trait paintings increased dra­matically. Several informal photographs taken during this period show him at work, often in his studio at 1330 Chestnut Street. These candid portraits of Eakins were never meant for publication, but they are the most revealing and delightful for historians, re­searchers, and admirers of the Philadelphia artist. Eakins is seen in a variety of unguarded moments. Although rarely smiling or laughing, he seems content. The degree of inti­macy, the locations, and the general informality of these images seem to indicate that his closest family and friends may have been the photogra­phers.

Between 1900 and 1910, the last decade of his active profes­sional life, Eakins sat for sev­eral striking portraits. The most memorable likeness was captured by an unknown photographer of the Chappel Studios. Its somber, thought­ful intensity is a quality also evident in Eakins’ painted portraits of this period­ – particularly in his self-portrait of 1905. Details of place or profession are replaced with a spare, dark mood. Eakins admired Rembrandt and, although few details of this interest are known, he may have encouraged his photogra­phers to capture a serious expression in a conscious parallel to the Old Master’s famous late self-portraits. In fact, late nineteenth century amateur and professional photographers often strove for a strong chiaroscuro quality, known then in the trade as “Rembrandt effects.” Required to submit a painted self-portrait for his election to the National Academy of Design in 1905, Eakins possibly had several photographic portraits made as he prepared for the project.

Dramatic contrasts of light – or “Rembrandt effects” – were also typical of photographs taken by Eakins’ wife. The fragmentary evi­dence of Susan’s artistic and photographic activities illus­trates her preference for dark backgrounds and serious sub­jects. Like her husband, she eventually turned away from genre and storytelling to con­centrate on portraiture. Susan would have been in an ideal position to see a casual photo­graphic opportunity and to capture it without asking Eakins to pose. She may have taken many of the informal photographs of Eakins in the Pennsylvania Academy’s col­lection, although her authorship can only be attributed.

Susan Macdowell Eakins also may have staged several photographs in a desire to create a more memorable im­age. In two negatives made in her husband’s studio, the parted drapes framing the scene create an almost theatri­cal effect. It is possible that even the 1889 image of Eakins leaning forward to hear the whispered comments of Dr. Frederick Milliken – depicted by the artist in his masterpiece, The Agnew Clinic – was a deliberate attempt to offer an intimate glimpse into an inte­rior typical of many seven­teenth century Dutch paintings.

Although many informal images of Eakins were made after 1900, few of them sur­vive. The extant photographs do show Eakins looking in­creasingly dour and in ill­-health. A photographer associated with Eakins at this time was Samuel Murray, his student and later his collabora­tor on various sculptural pro­jects. Extremely fond of Murray, Eakins certainly would have allowed – if not encouraged – him to take can­did photographs freely. A number of these late casual photographs are preserved in Murray’s scrapbooks, now safeguarded by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gar­den in Washington, D.C. The fact that these images exist only in the scrapbooks sug­gests that Samuel Murray, who visited Eakins often as the elder artist aged, took them as a record of his revered mentor.

Such an extensive collection of photographic portraits of a major American artist is rare. The size and scale of the group of both formal and informal images suggests a partly con­scious desire on the part of Thomas Eakins to create a kind of visual biography. In this way, Thomas Eakins, who produced only one self- portrait in paint, bequeathed following generations as strik­ing a graphic record of his appearance as did Rembrandt.


In 1991, the Pennsylvania Acad­emy of the Fine Arts will mount a major exhibition of art, manu­scripts, and photographs by Thomas Eakins. “Eakins Rediscovered – at Home, at School, at Work” (see “Currents” in the spring 1991 edition) will feature a recreation of the artist’s studio based on photographs drawn from Charles Bregler’s Thomas Eakins Collection.


For Further Reading

Burt, Nathaniel. The Perennial Philadelphians. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963.

Foster, Kathleen A. and Leibold, Cheryl. Writing About Eakins: The Manuscripts in Charles Bregler’s Thomas Eakins Col­lection. Philadelphia.- University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.

Goodrich, Lloyd. Thomas Eakins. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Hendricks, Gordon. The Life and Work of Thomas Eakins. New York: Grossman Press, 1974.

____. The Photographs of Thomas Eakins. New York: Grossman Press, 1972.

Johns, Elizabeth. Thomas Eakins, The Heroism of Mod­ern Life. Princeton, N.J.: Prince­ton University Press, 1983.

Pacchioli, David. “And who is Eakins?Pennsylvania Heri­tage. 15, 4 (Fall 1989), 18-25.

Rosenzweig, Phyllis. The Thomas Eakins Collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1977.

Schendler, Sylvan. Eakins. Bos­ton: Little, Brown, 1967.

Siegl, Theodore. The Thomas Eakins Collection. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1978.


The editor wishes to acknowledge the generosity of both the author and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in giving Pennsyl­vania Heritage this opportunity to feature these rare and previ­ously unpublished images of one of Pennsylvania’s – as well as one of the world’s – preeminent artists. A detailed history of the institu­tion by Academy staff member Jeanette M. Toohey, entitled “The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: An Ideal and a Symbol,” appeared in the spring 1988 edi­tion of this magazine.


The author wishes to thank Rick Echelmeyer who provided the copy photography for this article.


Cheryl Leibold, a native of Michi­gan, moved to Pennsylvania in 1974. She holds a master’s degree in art history and library science, and has served as the archivist for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for the last five years. A co-author of the book Writing About Eakins, The Manu­scripts in Charles Bregler’s Thomas Eakins Collection, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1989, she is currently at work on a catalogue of the photographs by Eakins in the extensive holdings of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.