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Thomas Eakins,
The Portrait of Professor Henry A. Rowland

The 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 are based.)

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 flesh.

–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. 377403.

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.