Skip to main content

Eakins, Thomas (1844–1916)

Thomas Eakins is now regarded as the greatest practitioner of realism in nineteenth-century American art. With the exception of his studies in France and Spain (1866–1870), Eakins spent his entire life in Philadelphia.

A controversial figure, Eakins was fired from his teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for removing the loincloth from a male model during an anatomy class with female students present. He shocked the art world with The Gross Clinic (1875), showing the surgeon Dr. Samuel D. Gross with his blood-covered scalpel in hand. (Gross's widowed daughter-in-law married Whitman's doctor, William Osler.) His equally sanguinary portrait of Dr. D.H. Agnew, The Agnew Clinic (1889), shows among the students in the gallery of the operating theater Dr. Nathan M. Baker, Whitman's nurse for two years and a witness to Whitman's will of 29 June 1888.

Eakins asked Whitman's permission to paint his portrait in 1887 (the date appears in the painting) but did not complete it until 1888. Eakins donated the portrait to Whitman, and upon Whitman's death it passed to Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, whose heirs later sold it to its present owner, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which had censured Eakins.

Whitman admired Eakins's inclination to unorthodox behavior and a willingness to shock established authority. Both were outside the mainstream of their artistic endeavors, and both saw in the human form an inherent beauty not requiring enhancement with a sympathetic brush, pen, or lens. Evidence exists suggesting that Eakins, a pioneer in photographic art, took multiple photographs of Whitman posing nude.


Folsom, Ed. "Whitman Naked?" Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 11 (1994): 200–202 and back cover.

Johns, Elizabeth. Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983.

Leon, Philip W. Walt Whitman and Sir William Osler: A Poet and His Physician. Toronto: ECW, 1995.

Rule, Henry B. "Walt Whitman and Thomas Eakins: Variations on Some Common Themes." Texas Quarterly 17 (1974): 7–57.

Wilmerding, John, ed. Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) and the Heart of American Life. London: National Portrait Gallery, 1993.

Back to top