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Thomas Eakins, The Crucifixion

The 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 point.

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.

© Text Copyright 1999-2000 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.