Crucifixion is surely
one of the greatest of Eakins' explorations of the potentially difficult,
pained relation of the soul and the world. There is a deliberately unresolved
quality to many aspects of the work. Eakins suspends his Christ figure
uneasily between the dust and dirt of the world (visible in the figure's
feet, fingernails, and uncut and broken toenails) and a state of sublime
spiritual calm beyond earthly concerns and contingencies (felt in the
elegant lines of the figure's body and the serenity of his delicately
bowed head). The viewer is similarly placed in an unresolved, in-between
position as a result of the low angle at which Christ is presented. Rather
than standing below Christ approximately at the level of his feet, where
crucifixion altarpieces customarily locate the spectator, we are positioned
approximately half-way up his body, encountering him not distanced from
us, floating over us as a God, but with an uncomfortable intimacy and
equality. Adding to the effect, the boyish grace of the frail body defines
the figure neither as entirely man nor God, but at an unresolved in-between
As in so many of Eakins' other
works, the hands are the place where the contrasting pulls of the body
and the spirit are felt. As our eyes move around the edges of the painting
from one limb to another in a counterclockwise direction–from the tortured
left hand (which recalls the mother's hands in The Gross Clinic),
to the slightly more relaxed right hand, to the calmly grounded feet,
and then up along the delicate legs and serene body, Eakins, the devotee
of time-lapse photography, presents us with the equivalent of a time-lapse
photograph of Christ's migration from the travails of the flesh to the
composure of the spirit as one nail after another is pounded into him.
It is as if we are watching Jesus gradually lose consciousness on his
way to death, as if his spirit were in the process of releasing itself
from his body before our eyes. (The absence of a sword mark in the figure's
side is another sign that Eakins has chosen to focus precisely on the
moment in which Christ hovers in transition between life and death.)
It is critical to the meaning
of the painting that Christ's state of spiritual composure and elevation
is achieved against the ground of the physicality and earthy ordinariness
in his situation. For all of the ultimate spirituality of the depiction,
this an emphatically human Christ, with realistically untanned
skin, displayed in the full harshness of early afternoon sunlight, the
weight of whose upper body is truly felt to be hanging from a cross-beam.
Eakins uses the weave of the canvas (visible through the rocks and sky)
and the materiality of the paint itself (crudely applied with a pallet
knife in the same areas) to further de-idealize the depiction. The combination
of the graininess of the canvas and the scuffed, unfinished treatment
of the pallet-knife passages gives the work a material tactility and tangibility–even
as Christ's state of repose commemorates his power to make those physical
realities bear spiritual meanings.
This emphasis on the materiality
of the painting (and the materiality of the persons, events, and objects
depicted) is one of the most important aspects of Eakins' greatest work.
He frequently painted on untreated or burlap canvas with somewhat thinned-down
pigments to allow the grain of the canvas to show. He used the technique
especially in his depictions of men's clothing to create the effect that
the viewer is not looking at an idealized, oil-painted representation
of cloth, but at actual cloth itself (as in his Portrait of Leslie
Miller). He often posed his sitters in chairs with worn lacquer and
frayed upholstery (as in his Portrait of Amelia Van Buren). The
shoes of many of his sitters are scuffed or beat-up (as in The Dean's
Roll Call). Their clothes are baggy from use, wrinkled, or creased
from storage (as in the Portrait of Letitia Wilson Jordan and the
Portrait of a Lady with a Setter Dog). The presence of these mundane
realities is central to the meaning of Eakins' work.
The deeply pragmatic implication
is that our most profound imaginative attainments take place within
the materiality of the world–not as an escape or vacation from it.
Rather than leaving material experience behind even briefly, we must shape
our destinies inside it. That, I take it, is the deepest meaning
of the Gross and Agnew portraits (and of all the other works I have examined).
Gross's and Agnew's intellectual poise and balance are not states of detachment
from but engagement with the welter, mess, and confusion of the
practical events around them. Eakins aspires to take his art a least a
little down off the wall and bring it into contact with the world, taking
its interests and forms of expression from everyday life. To paraphrase
a line from Robert Frost, the pragmatist (whether surgeon or artist) understands
that the best way out is always through. As Eakins' Christ demonstrates,
our supreme spiritual performances are staged, not as a release from,
but as an expression of our loving immersion in and embrace
of the contingencies and pains of all human experience. To invoke
James' metaphor one last time, we must shape our performances within
the "barbed-wire complications."
As he did in the Rowland painting,
Eakins uses handwriting in The Crucifixion to communicate the quality
of the principal figure's mind–though, in this case, by contrasting the
central figure's physical and spiritual state with the physical and spiritual
state of those doing the writing. Christ's imaginative achievement is
brought home to us by the difference between his sublime calm and composure
and the hysteria of the handwriting on the signage above him. The smooth
cleanness of his bodily line is visually played off against the physical
crudity of the inscription's Greek and Roman characters (whose irregular
zig-zags are visually echoed and reinforced by the crown of thorns immediately
under them). I would note parenthetically that, as on the Rowland frame,
the style of the writing matches its content: The agitation and ugliness
of its scrawl parallel its taunting, snidely sarcastic message. The clumsiness,
ignorance, and lack of composure of the minds and hands that made the
placard contrasts with the sensitivity and grace (in both the physical
and spiritual senses of the word) of Christ's expression of himself.
If writing is the place where
mind most visibly becomes hand (in Emerson's metaphor) or verb (in Dewey's)–the
line where idea and action meet–there may be said to be a kind of writing
in each of these paintings, pen and ink being only one of the forms it
takes. In Eakins' view, we write our intentions and meanings on the world
in many different ways. Christ "writes" his state of grace in
his physical deportment. Rowland "writes" his ideas not only
in his formulas and calculations, but in the rulings his machinery inscribes
on pieces of glass (like a painter writing his ideas in light), and in
the focus and firmness of his posture and pose. The rowers "write"
their identities in the large shapes of their overall performances and
in the smaller forms of the whorls and ripples that mark the paths they
take. The hunters in the shooting paintings "write" their intentions
and knowledge in their shifting acts of coordination and balance. Gross
and Agnew "write" their wisdom and skill in many different ways:
in the effect of their words on their students (and on the recording secretary
who is prominently featured in the Gross portrait), who themselves then
go on to write their remarks down. They also "write" their ideas
in the form of their actions on their patients (cuts inscribed on them
with pen-like scalpels).
But I have omitted what is
arguably the most important aspect of the acts of writing in these paintings
(and the most important aspect of the acts of writing they depict): their
temporality, evanescence, and mutability. For Eakins, the writing we do
in both life and art–whether we construe the concept literally or metaphorically–is
constantly decomposing, melting, and transforming. It is always being
superseded by new acts of writing. It is in motion.
Eakins' interest in the study
of motion is well documented. It is generally acknowledged that his study
of the photography of Eadweard Muybridge and his photographic experiments
with the Marey wheel and rotating camera shutters (both of which produce
a series of rapid exposures on a single photographic plate) informed a
number of his paintings of human and animal bodies in motion–The Freeman
Rogers Four-in-Hand and The Swimming Hole, for example. But
what has been less commented upon is the consciousness of time and change
displayed by virtually all of Eakins' work. Whether his figures are moving
or still, Eakins' work, like that of the pragmatists in this respect as
well, is deeply committed to honoring the flow of experience.
It is more than a pun on the
subject matter many of his outdoor paintings to say that the meanings
and relationships in Eakins' work are written in water. There is a profound
awareness of the fugitiveness of experience at the center of each of the
works I have discussed. In the hunting and rowing paintings, birds are
on the wing, a gun is being aimed, a second or two more or less and everything
and everyone will have changed. One hunter will have fired his shot; others
will be raising their guns to fire theirs; and every hand, arm, foot,
and boat will be in a slightly different position, rebalanced and recoordinated
with every other one. In Turning the Stake, only a split second
after the moment imagined, the Biglin brothers will have completed the
turning movement, changed their postures entirely, and begun pulling upstream
on the next leg of the race.
Though the fugitiveness of
experience may be less obvious in the other paintings I have considered;
it is equally present. I already pointed out the implicit temporality
of The Crucifixion–the time-lapse aspect of its understanding
of experience. In the clinic paintings, a minute more or less and each
of the positions will have shifted. Gross and Agnew will be at different
points in their operations and lectures. Even the portrait of Professor
Rowland, apparently so much more static in its presentation, registers
motion and change–not only with the surprising lightness and animation
of Rowland's right hand, the flicker of the rainbow that floats above
his left, the whirl of the equipment behind him, and the activity of his
assistant, but, even more importantly, in the movements of mind melting
and dissolving one into the other depicted on the frame. The dynamism
of the writing captures the flow and revision of the experimental process
itself, as if Eakins were presenting motion-study snapshots of Rowland's
brain. It displays the partial, provisional, ineluctably temporal unfolding
of an unending process of scientific exploration and discovery. To paraphrase
Emerson at a thoroughly pragmatic moment, what Eakins' frame depicts is
not "thoughts" but the drama of "Man Thinking." Eakins'
interest is not in product, but process.
The point is the tentativeness,
partialness, and incompleteness of all acts of "writing"
in Eakins' work–both the actual and the figurative, both the artist's
and the ones he depicts. William James appreciated this aspect of "writing"
(both his own and others'), when he talked about the provisionality of
all acts of intellectual codification. At one point in A Pluralistic
Universe, in an attempt to verbally capture the flowingness of experience,
he even unleashes a cascade of metaphors that find coincidental echoes
in Eakins' water pictures and motion studies:
…abstract concepts are
but as flowers gathered, they are only moments dipped out from the
stream of time, snap-shots taken, as by a kinetoscopic camera, at
a life that in its coming is continuous.
In an earlier essay, using
a metaphor that deliberately calls attention to the fugitiveness and evanescence
of all writing, James compares his own work to a series of "blazes"
or "spots" through a pathless wood or, in terms that take us
back to the frame of the Rowland painting, "a few formulas, a few
technical conceptions, a few verbal pointers" which only indicate
the outline of a provisional and constantly adjusted course of action:
Philosophers are after
all like poets. They are path-finders. What everyone can feel, what
everyone can know in the bone and marrow of him, they sometimes can
find words for and express. The words and thoughts of the philosophers
are not exactly the words and thoughts of the poets–worse luck. But
both alike have the same function. They are, if I may use a simile,
so many spots, or blazes,–blazes made by the axe of the human intellect
on the trees of the otherwise trackless forest of human experience.…
No one like the path-finder
himself feels the immensity of the forest, or knows the accidentality
of his own trails. Columbus, dreaming of the ancient East, is stopped
by pure pristine America, and gets no farther on that day; and the
poets and philosophers themselves know that what their formulas express
leaves unexpressed almost everything that they organically divine
and feel. So I feel that there is a center in truth's forest where
I have never been: to track it out and get there is the secret spring
of all my poor life's philosophic efforts; at moments I almost strike
into the final valley, there is a gleam of the end, a sense of certainty,
but always there comes still another ridge, and so my blazes merely
circle towards the true direction; and although now, if ever, would
be the fit occasion, yet I cannot take you to the wondrous hidden
spot to-day. To-morrow it must be, or to-morrow, or to-morrow; and
pretty soon death will overtake me ere the promise is fulfilled.
Of such postponed achievements
do the lives of all philosophers consist. Truth's fullness is elusive;
ever not quite, not quite! So we fall back on the preliminary blazes–a
few formulas, a few technical conceptions, a few verbal pointers–which
at least define the direction of the trail.
The most pragmatic aspect of
Eakins' work is his understanding of all action and expression as ineluctably
rough, imperfect, and partial. Painting after painting tells us that the
transactions between the mind and the hand are denied either finality
or perfection. As The Gross Clinic shows us, there will always
be messy spatters of blood (or paint) where there shouldn't be, and hesitant,
uncertain pauses while we deliberate what to do or say next. James wrote
that "we realize this life as something always off its balance, something
in transition," and D. H. Lawrence continued his thought with a phrase
that unconsciously echoes James' formulation: "we must balance as
we go." It is a metaphor that might be applied literally to Eakins'
hunters, sailors, and rowers, and figuratively to all of his depictions.
There is no goal to reach, no end to the process of balancing and rebalancing.
Where mind is a verb, there can be no resting place, no end to the activity
of expressive realization. There can only be an ongoing series of forever
unfinished acts of expression.
As every artist (and writer)
knows, the process of moving from abstract conception to practical execution,
of translating from mind to hand, of making mind a verb, inevitably involves
accepting the imperfection of enacted truth. There is no pure truth, no
complete truth, no eternal truth in the world of practical expression.
There is no rising above the partialities of space and time. Meanings
made in space and time are forever subject to decay in space and time.
The mind may be able to imagine
meanings that rise above spatial imperfection and temporal contingency,
but the meanings made by the hand are irredeemably spatially imperfect
and temporally contingent. They are partial, provisional, and (in James'
favorite term) "fluxional." The movement from mind to hand and
back to mind that Eakins depicts is itself forever on the move. It won't
sit still to have its picture painted, and when it is arrested pictorially,
it reminds us of how experience keeps moving beyond any particular pictorial
expression of it. There are few artists who more instinctively understood
life as an endless, imperfect transaction between elegant, orderly ideas
and unresolved, imperfect practices. The truth of the mind can stand still,
but for Eakins, as for Emerson, James, Dewey, and all pragmatists, the
truths of the hand must remain in motion....
–Excerpted from Ray Carney,
"When Mind is a Verb: Thomas Eakins and the Doing of Thinking,"
in Morris Dickstein (ed.) The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays in
Social Thought, Law, and Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,
1998), pp. 377–403.
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