Portrait of Professor Henry A. Rowland
falls into the fairly large group of Eakins' paintings that deals with
scientists and inventors–another set of figures who move from thinking
to doing and back again, marrying the work of the mind and hand. Rowland
invented the ruling machine that made possible the creation of diffraction
gratings. (A diffraction grating simulates the effect of a prism by creating
a spectrum. It was a scientifically important invention because spectra
display what are called absorption or Fraunhofer lines, allowing a scientist
to study the chemical properties of the material emitting the light. Thus
Rowland was the inventor of a machine that made possible a new way of
understanding matter, upon which most of modern physics and chemistry
Rowland's portrait highlights
both the professor's intellect and his practical skills, and explores
the connection of the two. While the overall visual effect is quite subdued
(rendered as it is almost entirely in earth tones), and the room Rowland
sits in is quite dark and shadowy, just as he did in the clinic paintings,
Eakins uses pools of light to draw the viewer's attention to specific
aspects of Rowland's life and work.
The brightest light illuminates
Rowland's face and prominent, veined forehead. Similar to what we have
seen in other works, Eakins not only dramatically positions Rowland's
head against a flatter background, but angles his body and directs his
gaze away from the viewer and the other figure in the work. The effect
is to prevent a social interpretation of the relationship of Rowland and
his assistant (or a social interpretation of Rowland's body language),
and to encourage a reading of Rowland's expression as a state of thoughtfulness.
From the Louis Kenton,
Letitia Wilson Jordon and Amelia Van Buren portraits to
The Portrait of Maud Cook and John H. Brinton, many of Eakins'
portraits focus on this precise imaginative moment–the moment in which
a formal, social relationship with one's surroundings gives way to a informal,
meditative one. It is as if–as he explicitly does in the various Benjamin
Rush works–Eakins aspired to depict his sitters at the instant they
cease to be sitters–to capture them the way they are just prior to
or just following the formal occasion of being painted, as
they are when they don't realize anyone is looking at them and stop "posing."
The goal is to represent some deep part of the person separate from and
more important than his social self.
What further links the Rowland
painting with the clinic paintings is its two other pockets of light,
which emphasize Rowland's practical relationship to his surroundings.
A dim light in the background displays the slowly moving wheels and shining
gears of Rowland's ruling machine being operated and adjusted by his lab
assistant. Like Rowland, the assistant is granted a double depiction that
emphasizes both mind and hand. Mindfulness is depicted by having his head
bowed (always an indication of thought in Eakins' work), and handiness
in terms of the brawniness of his right arm, the prominence given to the
shining shank of his screwdriver, and the alluringly blurred wheels and
gears of the machinery.
The final area of illumination
falls in Rowland's lap. In the only area of the painting as brightly lighted
as Rowland's face and forehead, Eakins displays two things which (even
more than the machinery in the background) refer us to Rowland's life
of practical accomplishment: We see the product of Rowland's research,
his diffraction grating, which he holds in his left hand; and we see the
professor's right hand–with its obvious strength and heavy veining, clearly
the hand of not just a thinker but a doer. As in the Biglins' performance
on the water or Gross's and Agnew's performances in their operating theaters,
the combination of delicacy, sensitivity, and strength in Rowland's hand
beautifully suggest that fine knowledge can be blended with the capacity
for fine action. Along with the other doublings in the painting, it suggests
a perfect unity of thought and action.
Rowland's left hand holds the
most visually arresting presence in the painting, one of the diffraction
gratings his machine produces. Not only does the sky-tinctured polychrome
of its brilliant rainbow coloration place it uncannily outside the earth-toned
monochrome of the rest of the painting, but, like a real diffraction grating
(especially a concave one, as Rowland's was), the light it gives off seemingly
floats somewhere above the surface of the work (a visual effect partially
achieved by its being framed with a black background as if it were a separate
painting within the painting). It glows in spectral splendor, as if the
process of imbuing matter with spirit, the process by which thought is
transmuted into object and event were a kind of magic. When we look at
the shimmering spectrum, it is as if the spirit that informed it still
vibrated within the trembling skin of its being–suspending it half in
the world of objects and half beyond it, as if the power of thought on
matter created a third element–numinous and intangible–somehow mysteriously
beyond both thought and matter. (The spinning, glowing wheels in the background
repeat the effect in monochrome, in a minor key as it were.)
There is an even more spectral
aspect of Rowland's portrait which, though it is the painting's most prominent
feature in life, is occasionally omitted from reproductions of it in books:
its handpainted frame. Eakins frames the portrait with a golden nimbus
(rectangular as befits a living figure) of thoughts, calculations, and
insights taken from the professor's experimental notebooks (written in
a facsimile of Rowland's own handwriting).
Eakins' father was a "writing
master" who made his living by copying and inscribing a wide range
of official and unofficial documents–from deeds to diplomas to birth,
death, and marriage certificates. We don't have to look further than this
frame to be certain that, probably dating from Eakins' earliest conversations
with his father as a boy, the painter had thought deeply about what various
writing styles "meant"–and about the act of writing itself
as the place where the human spirit most intimately impinges upon the
world of concrete objects. The pen is, as it were, the place where the
mind and the hand meet. It is where idea becomes event.
The writing on the frame explores
the relation of theory and practice in ways that parallel the linkages
of vision and execution within the painting. Mind is felt equally on both
sides of the frame, but in moving from left to right, we move from a realm
of abstract ideas to one in which ideas express themselves in actions
and events. On the left panel is a differential equation that defines
one of the fundamental principles of Rowland's work. Both its form and
its content express the energy and emotion of a grand conceptual insight.
It is written in a large, fluent, sweeping style. Its scrawl is free and
impassioned–easy, rapid and exuberant–as it unfurls expansively from
the bottom of the frame to the top.
In going from the left side
of the frame to the right, Rowland comes down from the heights of mathematical
abstraction and purity to grapple with a thousand practical details. He
shifts from the heady realms of physics to the grind of practical engineering.
The content of this writing is not grand and theoretical, but detailed,
practical, and specific. It consists of rough drawings of planned inventions,
wiring diagrams, and columns of experimentally determined coefficients
and graphed approximations based on a series of meticulous observations
and minute calculations. We have left the beauty and scope of general
insights to grapple with the nitty-gritty ordeal of lab experiments. Inspiration
gives way to perspiration. The grand sweep of an informing idea must come
to grips with the technicalities of execution. Just as it did on the left
side of the frame, the form of the writing reflects its meaning. The penmanship
is tiny, crabbed, and pinched. Squeezed horizontally into a series of
short, confined lines, its style is careful, niggling, and crowded.
In short, the movement from
the frame's left to its right side enacts the drama that Eakins himself
did every time he painted: the drama of an idea finding a way to express
itself in the forms of actual life. As the cramped style tells us, the
translation from one realm to the other is never easy. All of Eakins'
work demonstrates the effort the movement from mind to world requires.
The doings in Eakins' paintings above everything else require work
to be successful. The achievements of the "heroic mind"
require enormous energy and discipline. The paintings show us over and
over again that whether we are surgeons, athletes, seamstresses, inventors,
or artists, the act of expressing our souls in the forms of everyday life
costs us labors of effort.
I would note that even a painting
like The Pathetic Song, which features not a scientist, surgeon,
or athlete, but a female singer as the main figure, and clearly depicts
a state of imaginative exaltation, doesn't let us forget the work that
underpins the apparently effortless spiritual expression it depicts: The
stunning detailing of the singer's dress emphasizes the time and labor
that she must have put into every stitch; the treatment of her hair makes
us aware of the effort that she must have spent braiding every strand.
Eakins is showing us that no spiritual expression, no act of "realization"
comes easily, automatically, or effortlessly. There is always a price
to pay, frequently an enormous one–in time, pain, work, or suffering
(which we can read on the faces of his sitters)–in making the spirit
–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