The following material is a brief excerpt from Ray Carney's writing about American painting. To obtain the complete text of this piece or to read more discussions of American art, thought, and culture by Prof. Carney, please consult any of the three following books: American Vision (Cambridge University Press); Morris Dickstein, ed. The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law, and Culture (Duke University Press); and Townsend Ludington, ed. A Modern Mosaic: Art and Modernism in the United States (University of North Carolina Press). Information about how to obtain these books is available by clicking here.

Excerpts from Ray Carney's American Vision:
Thomas Eakins, Baby at Play
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If one uses the concept of turnings in the broadest sense to describe meditative, social, and physical movements–to include physical turnings of characters away from participation in social groups; inward turnings of the bodies and minds of figures upon themselves; and, most important, turnings of moments of narrative action or eventfulness into moments of static, pictorial composition–the work of Thomas Eakins and that of Frank Capra are strikingly similar in many respects. Such turnings might be said to be the subject of all of Eakins' work–literally, in paintings like Starting Out after Rail, The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake, and Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, and figuratively, in ones like the portraits of Professor Henry A. Rowland, Dr. John H. Brinton, and Maude Cook. Eakins was attracted to painting these instants of contemplation, stillness, or pause between moments of violent activity (in the sailing, boxing, shooting, and rowing paintings), and instances of inward–turning contemplation (in the great portraits) because, like Capra, he wanted to explore the point at which one sort of eventfulness is replaced by another, the point at which meditative movements of the mind interrupt or impinge on the world of action and event.

Such a meditative moment can take many different forms in Eakins' work, just as it does in Capra's. The block-building infant giant of Baby at Play is arrested at that precise moment at which action has been replaced by concentration, an absolute concentration of attention and effort in which one can feel the whole mind and spirit of the baby's truly monumental body poised and utterly concentrated on one square inch of building-block placement. The pyramidal composition of the painting combined with the effect of the mutually converging lines of the baby's arms, the pattern of bricks on the patio, the alignment of the toy horse-cart, and the downward concentration of the baby's attention indicated by the inclination of her head and the lighting on her face, absolutely focus the viewer's attention, like the baby's, on that arrested act of delicate, balanced placement. Everything in the painting is designed to communicate the complex, concentrated mindfulness of the baby at this moment and to contrast it with the slack prostration of the sawdust and rag doll thrown down casually behind her. The state of focused concentration embodied by the infant truly makes society (even the society of dolls) irrelevant.

The rowers, sailors, boatmen, and shooters who are the figures in Eakins' best-known paintings are caught at similar moments of concentrated, instantaneously arrested balance, but theirs is an even more complex act of mindfulness than the baby's, insofar as it usually involves the interaction of two or more figures in an event of mutual interaction, as when the Biglin brothers yaw their boat around a turning buoy, or a shooter and his boatman delicately balance an unstable flat-bottomed boat in position as a shot is fired....

The preceding material is a brief excerpt from Ray Carney's writing about American painting. To obtain the complete text of this piece or to read more discussions of American art, thought, and culture by Prof. Carney, please consult any of the three following books: American Vision (Cambridge University Press); Morris Dickstein, ed. The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law, and Culture (Duke University Press); and Townsend Ludington, ed. A Modern Mosaic: Art and Modernism in the United States (University of North Carolina Press). Information about how to obtain these books is available by clicking here.

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Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.