- Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity by Alan C. Braddock
The central concern of Alan Braddock's Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity is how "human difference, diffusion, and artistic nationalism" are present in the oeuvre of Thomas Eakins (2). Braddock argues that Eakins was working as an artist before modern anthropological theories of "culture" emerged, yet it is very much this nascent anthropological understanding of culture that is at the heart of this book and, Braddock argues, at the heart of Eakins's painting practice.
In his introduction, Braddock asks how Eakins may have conceived of culture, particularly in evolutionary terms and as the term applied to nineteenth-century American understandings of race. Braddock begins his discussion of Eakins with the image that is reproduced on the publication's cover, The Dancing Lesson (originally The Negroes), 1878. The author challenges the assumption of previous Eakins scholarship that the work is a sympathetic depiction of race, not by arguing that it is racist caricature but by suggesting that it is a visual iteration of Eakins's interest in American folk-life figures and an American "type." In making race and culture central concerns of his study of Eakins, Braddock moves away from the nationalistic, biographical, or psychosexual scholarship on Eakins that has defined the field since the work of Eakins's biographer Lloyd Goodrich. While the author wishes to complicate earlier modernist-nationalist scholarship, he is particularly critical of what he calls "whimsical forms of psychological interpretation" (40). With his focus on culture and anthropology, Braddock's work is more [End Page 460] methodologically comparable to the work on nineteenth-century cultures of skepticism of Michael Leja in Looking Askance: Skepticism and American Art from Eakins to Duchamp (University of California Press, 2004) than that of other recent Eakins scholars such as Beth Johns, Kathy Foster, Lillian Milroy, and William Homer.
Geographic place is a key structuring component in the book. Chapter 1, "'Amongst Strangers': Studies in Character Abroad," focuses on Eakins's time as an art student in Paris and southern Spain. Chapter 2, "'What Kind of People Are There': Local Color, Cosmopolitanism, and the Limits of Civic Realism," returns the reader to Eakins's native Philadelphia. Chapter 3, "'To Learn Their Ways That I Might Paint Some': Cowboys, Indians, and Evolutionary Aesthetics," travels to the Badlands of North Dakota and then back to the newly developed anthropological Free Museum of Science and Art at the University of Pennsylvania. A final coda, "'Distinctly American Art': Thomas Eakins, National Genius," returns to the question raised in the introduction, "'This Current Confusion': Thomas Eakins before Cultures," of Thomas Eakins as an "American" genus, or genius, rooted in Philadelphia soil.
Chapter 1 considers Eakins's "formative encounter with foreign people and customs as both art student and tourist" (46). In so doing, Braddock intentionally spends his time analyzing often-overlooked student works in the artist's oeuvre such as Man in a Turban, 1866-67, and Female Model (A Negress), ca. 1867-69, that reveal Eakins's brush with Orientalism under the influence of his teacher Jean-Léon Gérôme. Braddock also fruitfully compares the artist's A Street Scene in Seville to the aforementioned Dancing Lesson and argues convincingly that both works delineate folk culture and national character.
Chapter 2 will probably be of most interest to the readers of Pennsylvania History because in this chapter Braddock takes an anthropological approach to Eakins's paintings and illustrations of the cultures of outdoor Philadelphia. The author argues that "by frequently depicting Philadelphia's environs and inhabitants during the 1870s and early 1880s, Eakins broadly and consistently engaged the period aesthetic of 'local color'" (101). The term "local color" is taken from a genre of period American literature, which captured American types much as Eakins did Orientalist types in Paris. Here Braddock argues that Eakins created an image of Philadelphia as an exemplar of national American culture for a cosmopolitan audience. It is not entirely clear what the...