Coming of Age: American Art, 1850s to 1950s
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This object is a member of the following groups (click any group name to view all objects in that group):Themes: MLC Portfolio: Visualizing Music
Themes: MLC Portfolio: Visualizing Poetry
Exhibitions: 4 x 4
Themes: MLC Portfolio: American Identity
Throughout his career Thomas Eakins was engaged by the challenge of describing in pictorial terms the superior creative and intellectual abilities of selected men and women.<sup>1</sup> In this portrait, Eakins treated the paired themes of performance and musicianship. His subject was Elizabeth Crowell (1858-1929), a skillful pianist. She was the sister of Eakins's boyhood friend William Crowell, who married Eakins's sister Frances in 1872, and of Katherine Crowell, to whom Eakins himself was engaged before her premature death in 1879.<sup>2</sup>
<i>Elizabeth at the Piano</i> is the largest in a series of four paintings of women playing the piano produced by Eakins in the early 1870s; these in turn are part of a group of canvases most of which feature female family members or close friends posed in the gaslit interiors of the Eakins family's Mount Vernon Street house.<sup>3</sup> Two of these paintings, <i>Elizabeth at the Piano</i> and <i>Chess Players</i>, an all male scene featuring his father and two friends (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), were among the five pictures that Eakins sent to the Art Department of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia; there is no record that he exhibited the others.<sup>4</sup>
With masterful control of dramatic chiaroscuro, Eakins portrayed Elizabeth Crowell sitting at a grand piano set on a decorative Oriental carpet. Eakins used a limited palette of cool blues and browns; a red rose in Elizabeth's hair provides a spot of color. A beam of light emanates from the upper left, outside the picture, to highlight the sitter's head and hands, the sheet music, and a patch of wall beyond. A rich impasto of color, applied with a palette knife, enlivens the canvas surface with textural contrasts. The result is a powerful evocation of the "spiritual and physical union requisite to music making.”<sup>5</sup>
In his use of dramatic tonal contrasts and gestural paint application Eakins emulated the paintings of Léon Bonnat, with whom he had studied for a short time in 1869 while still in Paris. By the late 1860s Bonnat had begun to make his name as a popular society portraitist, best known for combining painstaking exactitude with a lush painting technique, troweling color onto canvases to create vibrant surface patterns and textures around the calculated poses of his sitters; some critics said his portraits seemed created from strokes of plaster and sand.<sup>6</sup>
In contrast to Bonnat's more prosaic compositions, however, Eakins endowed his subject with a spiritual dimension. Light reflected from the sheet music touches the sitter's face, outlining her profile "to reveal an expression of serenity, confidence and concentration.”<sup>7</sup> Though the light comes from outside the canvas, it is caught and controlled by pianist, instrument, and music as if emanating from within the figure; the play of light and shadow becomes the pictorial sign of her concentration and talent. As Michael Fried has noted, Thomas Eakins produced two kinds of images during the early 1870s: scenes of rowing and boating that represent men engaged in vigorous activity in the outdoors, "brightly and for the most part evenly illuminated [and] executed with scrupulous attention to minute detail," and interior scenes usually featuring young women, "engaged in simple actions that assume a dignity by virtue of having been represented as manifestly and intensely <i>absorptive</i>." It seems that Eakins was pursuing two contrasting artistic paths, the active and masculine versus the contemplative and feminine. But as Fried goes on to point out, the "absorptive" quality of the domestic interiors in fact are a complement, not a counterpoint, to the equally reflective self-involvement of Eakins's athletes.<sup>8</sup>
Many writers have characterized Eakins's relentless genius for revealing the inner character of his sitters as informed by a Calvinist "Yankee" sensibility.<sup>9</sup> This misrepresents not only the evidence of the artist's own compositions, but also the character of the place in which his life was mainly spent. Eakins came from Quaker stock, and he lived in this country's quintessential Quaker community. Far from being Calvinist in outlook, his portraiture was informed by what William Innes Homer has called the "secular Quakerism" of his generation. Homer notes the influence of Quaker values in Eakins's dislike of pretension and his lifelong admiration of individual achievement derived from thought as much as action: "Shown almost always in plain simple settings his sitters think, meditate, reflect ... the sitter may belong to the aristocracy of achievement but is given none of the trappings of social aristocracy."<sup>10</sup> Indeed, we can trace throughout Eakins's portraits, from the start of his career, the consistent use of chiaroscuro not just to model forms but also to describe pictorially the mental processes of his sitters. The accomplished men and women whom Eakins deliberately selected as subjects experience the "inner light" of talent and inspiration.
Elizabeth Milroy, <i>Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue</i> (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 362-63
1. "[He] sought the person who in his full intellectual, aesthetic, and athletic power was definitive of the best of his times"; Elizabeth Johns, <i>Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life</i> (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 3.
2. The identification was made by Susan Eakins in a letter to Thomas Cochran, 22 June 1928, Addison Gallery Archives. For Eakins's relationship with William, Elizabeth, and Katherine Crowell, see Lloyd Goodrich, <i>Thomas Eakins</i>, vol. I (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 79-81.
3. The related paintings are: <i>Frances Eakins</i> (c. 1870, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri); <i>Home Scene</i> (c. 1870-71, The Brooklyn Museum, New York); and <i>At the Piano</i> (c. 1870, Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, The University of Texas at Austin).
4. The other three paintings were: <i>Portrait: Dr. Rand, Base-Ball</i>, and <i>Whistling for Plover</i>. A sixth painting, the <i>Portrait of Dr. Gross</i>, was displayed in the U.S. Army Post Hospital exhibition. See Goodrich, p. 130.
5. Julia M. Einspruch, "Elizabeth at the Piano," in <i>Thomas Eakins (1844- 1916) and the Heart of American Life</i>, ed. John Wilmerding (London: National Portrait Gallery, 1993), p. 85, no. 15.
6. For some weeks in the summer of 1869, Eakins attended critiques in Bonnat's private atelier where his friend William Sartain was already studying. See Elizabeth Milroy, "Thomas Eakins's Artistic Training, 1860-1870" (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1986), pp. 254-62; and Milroy, "Points of Contact: Robert Harris, Thomas Eakins and the Art of Léon Bonnat," <i>Journal of Canadian Art History</i> 10 (1987), pp. 84-103.
7. Einspruch, p. 85, no. 15.
8. Michael Fried, "Realism, Writing, and Disfiguration in Thomas Eakins's <i>Gross Clinic</i>," in <i>Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane</i> (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 42-43, 50. Eakins's abandonment of the sporting pictures by 1875 and his subsequent focus on more somber compositions such as <i>Elizabeth at the Piano</i> may relate to his own physical as well as emotional state. Late in 1873, in a letter to his teacher Jean-Léon Gérôme, Eakins apologized for a long lapse in correspondence by explaining that he had come very close to dying of malaria; the onetime athlete thenceforth was susceptible to an illness that might recur at any time. Only a draft of this letter survives (Charles Bregler's Thomas Eakins Collection, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia).
9. Andrew Wilton, review of "Thomas Eakins," <i>Burlington Magazine</i> 136 (1994), pp. 43-44.
10. William Innes Homer, <i>Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art</i> (New York: Abbeville Press, 1992), pp. 219-21. For a thorough discussion and comparison of the "Calvinist" and "Quaker" sensibilities, see E. Digby Baltzell, <i>Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia</i> (New York: Free Press, 1979).
This object was included in the following exhibitions:Memorial Exhibition of the Works of the Late Thomas Eakins, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 11/5/1917 - 12/3/1917
Memorial Exhibition of the Works of the Late Thomas Eakins, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 12/23/1917 - 1/13/1918
Romantic Painting in America, The Museum of Modern Art, 11/15/1943 - 12/31/1944
A Loan Exhibition of the Works of Thomas Eakins, 1844-1944, M. Knoedler and Co., Inc., 6/5/1944 - 7/31/1944
The World of the Romantic Artist. A Survey of American. Culture from 1800-1875, Detroit Institute of Arts, 12/21/1944 - 1/28/1945
Exhibition of Musical Instrument Paintings, Boston Symphony Orchestra, 2/1/1946 - 2/9/1946
Campus Taste in Art [Student Taste in Art], Addison Gallery of American Art, 2/16/1951 - 3/12/1951
Scope in Collecting [25th Anniversary Exhibition], Addison Gallery of American Art, 10/19/1956 - 12/24/1956
Thomas Eakins 1844-1916, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1/16/1958 - 2/16/1958
Living with Design, Addison Gallery of American Art, 10/22/1959 - 10/23/1959
The Works, Addison Gallery of American Art, 11/7/1969 - 2/22/1970
Thomas Eakins Retrospective, Whitney Museum of American Art, 9/21/1970 - 11/29/1970
Winslow Homer, Albert P. Ryder, Thomas Eakins, Addison Gallery of American Art, 12/12/1980 - 1/4/1980
Thomas Eakins: Artist of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 5/29/1982 - 8/4/1982
The New England Eye: Master American Paintings from New England School, College , Williams College Museum of Art, 9/9/1983 - 11/13/1983
The Art of Music: American Paintings and Musical Instruments 1770-1910, Lamont Art Gallery, 11/18/1984 - 12/16/1984
Raymond Saunders: Addison Delectations, Addison Gallery of American Art, 2/19/1988 - 3/20/1988
Boys and Girls, Men and Women, Addison Gallery of American Art, 4/12/1990 - 6/10/1990
American Masterworks, Addison Gallery of American Art, 10/5/1990 - 12/16/1990
Thomas Eakins, National Portrait Gallery, 10/8/1993 - 1/23/1994
Faces of the Addison: Portraits from the Collection, Addison Gallery of American Art, 4/23/1994 - 7/31/1994
Andover Alumni Collectors, Addison Gallery of American Art, 4/29/1995 - 7/30/1995
Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, Addison Gallery of American Art, 4/13/1996 - 7/31/1996
Framework: American Pictures and Frames, Addison Gallery of American Art, 1/16/1999 - 4/4/1999
Inside and Out: Scenes of American Life from the Addison Collection, Addison Gallery of American Art, 9/26/2000 - 12/31/2000
Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), Philadelphia Museum of Art, 9/30/2001 - 9/15/2002
Eye on the Collection: Copley to Hopper, Addison Gallery of American Art, 12/21/2004 - 6/12/2005
Eye on the Collection: West to Hopper, Addison Gallery of American Art, 6/17/2005 - 10/16/2005
75 Years of Giving, Addison Gallery of American Art, 4/11/2006 - 7/31/2006
American Portraiture from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, The Hyde Collection, 7/30/2006 - 11/26/2006
Coming of Age: American Art, 1850s to 1950s, American Federation of Arts, 9/9/2006 - 9/7/2009
Eye on the Collection, Addison Gallery of American Art, 4/27/2013 - 7/31/2013
Eye on the Collection: Artful Poses, Addison Gallery of American Art, 2/1/2014 - 3/30/2014
Exterior Spaces, Interior Places, Addison Gallery of American Art, 9/2/2014 - 1/4/2015
Selections from the Permanent Collection, Addison Gallery of American Art, 9/12/2015 - 3/13/2016
Eye on the Collection, Addison Gallery of American Art, 9/1/2017 - 7/31/2018
4 x 4, Addison Gallery of American Art, 9/1/2018 - 7/31/2019
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