Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity
By: Alan C. Braddock
I am an Assistant Professor of Art History at Temple University in Philadelphia (on leave, academic year 2008-09). I teach a variety of courses in American art history from the colonial period to the present. As a scholar, my work strives to produce new ways of seeing and understanding art through interdisciplinary exploration of its historical contexts. Much of my research so far has focused on realism and the history of anthropology, as embodied in my book Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity, just released by UC Press. In addition, I am now branching into two new areas. One is ecocriticism, a form of ethical inquiry into the relationship between art and environmental history. For several years, I have taught an undergraduate course called "Art and Environment in America since 1800," for which I always struggled to find appropriate reading assignments. Fortunately, that problem is about to be solved, because I've put together my own textbook for the course. In December, the University of Alabama Press will release A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History, a collection of essays by authors from various disciplines that I have co-edited with Christoph Irmscher, Professor of English at Indiana University. Another new area of interest for me is the impact of modern warfare on American artists, particularly in altering their ways of seeing and addressing the beholder, from the Civil War to World War I. With that in mind, I'm working on another book titled Gun Vision: The Ballistic Imagination in American Art from Homer to O'Keeffe, which I expect to complete later this year.
My book, Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity, is the first to examine a major American artist in relation to the pluralist concept of 'cultures,' which began to emerge consistently in the writings of anthropologist Franz Boas and his students after 1900. It was only after Eakins died (in 1916) that the 'culture concept' acquired wide currency. My book demonstrates that Eakins was "premodern" in the sense that he never encountered or comprehended that concept, meaning that recent scholarly claims about his 'cultural' perspective are imprecise and anachronistic. Eakins understood human diversity in terms of race, nation, gender, class, and religion, not 'cultural' behavior. Consequently, my book implicitly demands that we use the word 'cultural' more carefully and historically when describing other past artists. With that in mind, given the focus of my book on one painter from Philadelphia (albeit a very important one), I would be interested to learn from readers of this blog what other artists – American or not – might provide interesting case studies along these lines. Winslow Homer? Mary Cassatt? Paul Gauguin? Aaron Douglas?