- The Paris Letters of Thomas Eakins
Among the most exciting episodes in recent American art historiography, one might mention the recovery in the early 1980s of a trove of Thomas Eakins's paintings, drawings, photographs, and negatives, as well as dozens of letters and other documents written by Eakins and members of his circle that had been stored in the basement of a Philadelphia row house. Before this, though some of Eakins's letters previously acquired by private and public collections had been published, much of his correspondence was known only through transcriptions made by the artist's widow in the 1930s for early biographer Lloyd Goodrich or by Goodrich himself. Accordingly, Eakins studies were transformed when the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts purchased what is now known as Charles Bregler's Thomas Eakins Collection (named for a former student who had removed the documents and souvenirs from the artist's house after the death of Eakins's widow). In 1989, Kathleen A. Foster and Cheryl Leibold published an annotated guide to letters and documents in the Bregler Collection.1 Foster's Thomas Eakins Rediscovered (1997) formed a companion study of the paintings and drawings, as did Eakins and the Photograph, the catalogue of a 1994 exhibition co-organized by the Academy and the Smithsonian Institution.2 These three volumes are rigorous works of scholarship that ushered in what might be called a "golden age" of Eakins scholarship: since 1990, more than a dozen monographs and exhibition catalogues as well as countless articles and essays on the artist and his circle have appeared.
As the author of several essays on Eakins's work as well as a full-length monograph, William Innes Homer is eminently qualified to edit the surviving letters that Eakins wrote to family and friends from the summer of 1866, when he left Philadelphia to study art at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, to 1870 when he returned permanently to his native city. Drawn from all repositories, public and private, these number more than one hundred and thirty letters (including twenty-two letters still known only in transcription), as well as a sketchbook diary Eakins kept while in Madrid and Seville in late 1869 and early 1870.3 Homer has included every known item, including brief notes and fragments, arranged in chronological order, with two to three-sentence-long explanatory glosses dispersed throughout. In an appendix, he also provides a chronological list of the letters and current repositories. The present volume is the first of two: Homer is currently working on a companion volume of the artist's correspondence from 1870 to 1915, the date of Eakins's last letter, written a year before his death.
Homer's long-awaited compilation of Eakins's early letters is a welcome addition to the literature. The edited correspondence of several eighteenth and nineteenth-century American artists now is available. Among the most scholarly and comprehensive are the multi-volume compilations of the Charles Willson Peale Family Papers and Benjamin Latrobe's papers.4 Homer notes volumes of letters by George Inness, Robert Henri, John Sloan and John Marin in his introduction. More closely related to Eakins are other first-hand accounts by Americans of European art-study in the post-Civil War era, notably Julian Alden Weir and Kenyon Cox, both of whom also studied with Jean-Léon Gérôme; and the sculptor Lorado Taft who, like Eakins, studied with Augustin Dumont (though Homer mentions neither the Cox nor the Taft volumes).5 Most important—but unmentioned—is the volume of letters by Mary Cassatt and members of her circle edited by Nancy Mowll Mathews. Like Eakins, Cassatt was from Philadelphia and had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before going abroad. The two were acquainted, and with Eakins's letters now available, we can gain an intriguing comparison of their experiences.6 [End Page 687]
These volumes have set a standard for editorial rigor and thoroughness that the present volume doesn't...