the hand of the mind" is an ideal in Emerson, a set of philosophical
insights and procedures in James, and a literal depiction in dozens of
Eakins' paintings. Few artists have more deeply explored the relation
of idea and execution. For a quick introduction one need only glance at
two of Eakins' best known works: The Gross Clinic and The Agnew
Clinic. They clearly take the relation of hand and mind as their subject.
Mind is vividly represented
in both. Gross and Agnew are portrayed at moments of deep thoughtfulness.
At the moment Eakins chooses to imagine, each professor of surgery has
briefly paused in his operation (and his lecture) to ponder something.
A variety of effects emphasize their thoughtfulness. In the first place,
there is the presentation of the head. Each is placed against a darker
background and lighted so as prominently to display his high-domed forehead,
furrowed brows, and deep-set eyes. (Gross is more theatrically presented
than Agnew, illuminated as he is by a single source of light which leaves
half of his face dramatically shadowed and creates a semi-spiritualized
aureole out of his light gray hair.) As he does in many other works, Eakins
heightens the expressive effect of both heads by highly modeling them
and placing them against backgrounds that are much "flatter"
than they are (both in the sense of being less three-dimensionally rendered
and being painted with less oily, more thinned-down pigments).
The placement of the surgeons
with respect to the operating tables contributes to our sense that, at
the moment Eakins has chosen to represent, each of the men has momentarily
taken a meditative step off to one side of the heaving sea of activity
around him. Each is marginalized by a spatial caesura (smaller for Gross
and larger for Agnew), and pivoted slightly away from both the students
he addresses and the operation he conducts. Insofar as both doctors are
turned away from their assistants and their eyes are averted from contact
with anyone around them, it is impossible to read the figures of Gross
and Agnew as interacting socially or physically with anyone at the moment
we glimpse them. We are meant to read them as "thinking." Their
visual positioning figures their imaginative position: a state of contemplative
withdrawal or meditative separation from the welter of events.
But it is critical to observe
their states of withdrawal are only partial; both doctors are still immersed
in and engaged with a series of practical events. After all, Eakins chooses
to depict Gross and Agnew not in their studies as thinkers, but very much
at work as doers. As surgeons and teachers in the midst of an operation,
surrounded by hordes of others with various claims on their attention,
they are in the middle of the most complex course of actions imaginable.
This is a world in which action counts as much as thought–or, to put
it more accurately, a world in which action can't be separated from thought.
would argue that the point of both paintings is precisely the ways that
Gross and Agnew bridge the realms of thinking and doing. Eakins brings
the point home to us through a series of contrasts in which the meaningful
connection of the two realms–of being with doing, of mental impulses
to manual expressions–is flawed or absent in various ways. There are
dozens of arms and hands visible (and invisible) in both paintings, and
their sheer number and prominence draw our attention to them, but one
of the things we slowly realize is that there are only a few in which
hand and mind are linked in a disciplined, productive relationship–one
in which mind informs hand and hand informs mind with the same degree
of subtlety that Eakins' own hand and mind obviously worked in concert
when he painted his work. Consider the most important groups of hands
and arms in the two works:
- First, there are the students'
hands and arms, almost all of which are slack and lacking any executive
function, if they are not simply absent (most blatantly in the centrally
positioned student in the Agnew painting, who cannot bother to remove
his hands from his pockets to take notes).
- Then there are the hands
and arms of the figures in the entranceways to each operating theater.
One man in the Gross portrait uses his arm to lean against the wall;
another lounges against the opposite wall with his arms down at his
sides. The figure in the Agnew portrait uses his hand to shield his
whisper. None of the three might be said to put his limbs to productive
- Next, there are the partially
or totally obscured hands and arms of both patients, which represent
a third form of slackness or inattentiveness, cut off from mental
control and usefulness by the haze of anesthesia.
- Then there are the arms
and hands of the patient's mother (if that is what she is) writhing
in pain in The Gross Clinic. (Several sketches survive documenting
the care Eakins put into her depiction.) Her arms and hands contrast
with those of both the students and the patients without being any
more usefully employed. Her gestures are highly expressive, but completely
undisciplined and uncontrolled.
- At the other expressive
extreme, there are the arms and hands of the recording secretary in
the Gross portrait, and the arms and hands of the various surgical
assistants in both paintings. They figure a different, but equally
limited, relationship of hand and mind. One might say that they are
examples of being all hand. They are instances of masterful
manual dexterity (the ability to restrain, to anesthetize, to cut,
and to record), but they lack the capacity to make creative decisions.
They merely follow Gross's and Agnew's instructions.
In this whirl of compared and
contrasted limbs and gestures, illustrating various forms and degrees
of mental and manual disconnection or infacility, only Agnew and Gross
truly combine mindfulness and handiness. In fact, in terms of one of the
tenets of the pragmatic view, I would argue that they demonstrate that
in acts of supreme creativity the difference between the two realms disappears.
They erase the distinction between manual and mental dexterity, insofar
as their scalpel-wielding hands are clearly energized and mobilized by
their thoughts as much as their thoughts are disciplined and instructed
by their practical performances.
The particular positions and
gestures of both doctors express the blending of the realms. The verticality
of their presentation tells us that the doctors rise above the merely
executive functions of the horizontally displayed elements of the operating
tables beside them–yet without losing touch with that realm of activity.
As they step aside to think or make a point in their lectures, both doctors
significantly hold scalpels poised for imminent action; they are not just
lecturing about surgery, but practicing surgeons still at work. (No other
figure is given a scalpel in either painting.) Gross is placed in an especially
complex double position: even as he takes a half-step back and turns halfway
to the side, he is shown continuing to lean on the operating table, with
his left arm and his hand touching it (or the patient), maintaining intimate
practical contact with the work at hand.
The same point is made less
conceptually and more perceptually by the presentation of the group engaged
in the operation in the Gross portrait. Eakins organizes the visual space
so that, of all of the medical figures in the work, only Gross presents
a coherent, clearly legible visual identity. In their merely manual functionality,
the other figures around the operating table are all on the verge of dissolving
into visual incoherence. The impression is all the more vivid when the
painting is viewed not in a page-size reproduction but in life. In Eakins'
looming, larger-than-life canvas, it becomes extremely hard to decipher
the sprawl of the figures on and around the operating table (especially
given the dark monochrome of the color scheme). Even in reduced-size reproduction,
there is such a confusing overlap of bodies and limbs (with the patient
crisscrossed by a network of assistants' hands and arms) that it becomes
difficult to tell what limb belongs to what person, or where one body
ends and the next begins (an effect heightened through the use of severe
foreshortening). Gross alone presents a unitary bodily and mental presence,
being granted a clear and separate visual identity. That is to say, as
a blotch of paint, Gross organizes the visual spaces of his painting similar
to the way, as a doctor, he organizes the surgical space. His visual composure
and organization is a kind of metaphor for his psychological and functional
composure and organization.
is to say, the paintings are not only theatrical in their amphitheater
settings and lighting effects, but subscribe to what might be called a
fundamentally theatrical conception of personal identity. Figures express
themselves not merely (as in traditional portrait painting) through their
clothing, posture, gestures, and facial expressions, but by means of practical
forms of action and interaction with others. They are defined not simply
in terms of states of being (which might be said to be the expressive
mode of most other portraits), but in their practical mastery of forms
of doing. In Eakins' definition of who and what we are, consciousness
is not a merely personal, private, internal state, but is required to
externalize itself in a concrete course of action. The shift from the
one definition of identity to the other might be called the pragmatic
turn. We are, at least in large part, what we do.
We are our hands as much as our minds. The union of the realms is crucial
to the meaning of both paintings. For Eakins and all pragmatists, mental
activity is not a time out from practical performance. Thought is not
an alternative to action or action an alternative to thought (as in Platonic
philosophy), but each is a continuation of the other. Gross's and Agnew's
unique achievement is to bridge the realms of thinking and doing. They
masterfully inject mind into the world.
When, in "What Pragmatism
Means," James called for a philosophy that turns "towards concreteness
and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power," he
might have been describing not only the philosophical predilections of
the sorts of sitters Eakins was interested in painting (many of whom are
men known for their practical accomplishments), but Eakins' own fact-imbued
forms of depiction. With his use of photography, his studies of perspective
(and frequent use of perspective grids in his sketches), his motion studies,
and his interest in science and engineering, Eakins was so devoted to
concreteness and factuality that he laid himself open to frequent criticisms
of what was said to be his overly "scientific," "factual,"
or "literal" treatment of his subjects. As Frank Stella once
wittily remarked, works of art are always at least to some extent "lifted
off the ground, up in the air," but Eakins' goal, like that of James,
is to reestablish contact between ideals and practical realities.
It is not at all uncommon for
artists to choose men of action and practical achievement as their subjects,
but what distinguishes Eakins' work from that of most other nineteenth-century
artists is his democratic and egalitarian definition of what constitutes
achievement. As Elizabeth Johns has pointed out, heroism in Eakins' paintings
(as in Whitman's poetry) is not confined to grand figures–clergymen,
statesmen, and generals–but is a quality that almost anyone, anywhere
can display: surgeons, scientists, and inventors–even rowers, boxers,
baseball players, and hunters.
Eakins' work is, as Johns understands,
about a new kind of heroism, but I would argue that what is most distinctive
and important about Eakins' conception of heroism is not the fact
that it includes the common man, but rather the mutually supportive relationship
it imagines to exist between consciousness and performance. As both the
Gross and the Agnew portraits demonstrate, the essence of this distinctively
American conception of heroism is its stunning equation of mental and
practical power, as if there were no inherent obstacle in converting the
one into the other. That daring leap of faith from mind to matter is the
heart and soul of the pragmatic position and the deepest connection between
Eakins' work and pragmatic philosophy.
for Eakins as for James and Emerson, is precisely the ability of the individual
to express his consciousness in worldly actions and events. To describe
that transaction between inner and outer realms, Emerson invented the
concept of "the heroic mind"–a term which signifies a state
of blended thought and action in which the "thinking" and the
"doing" are one (a concept which James borrowed verbatim from
Emerson). It would not be too much to say that this belief that that the
individual can perform his imagination in the world was the American dream:
It was the vision that certain Romantic ideals of originality, creativity,
and freedom (which English Romantics and German Idealists were willing
to let remain states of consciousness) could be expressed in the ordinary
doings of everyday life. To put it most baldly: The American dream consisted
of the belief that to have a free imagination is actually to be able to
make oneself free in society. As Emerson tantalizingly put it at several
points in his writing, the mind was endowed with the capacity to "realize"
But even Emerson seems slightly
more cautious about the relation of the imagination to worldly expression
than Eakins. When Emerson concludes "Experience" with the stirring
peroration that "the true romance which the world exists to realize
will be the transformation of genius into practical power," he at
least has the prudence to call the ideal a "romance" and to
locate it somewhere in the indefinite future (the place Emerson typically
locates all of his ideals). Eakins puts the "realization of genius"
in the here and now. The subject of almost all of his work is the intimate
connection between ideas and acts, impulses and executions....
–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