Important American Paintings - September 2010
Thomas Eakins
The Honorable John A. Thornton, 1903
Oil on canvas, 24 × 20 inches
Signed and dated at upper right: "Thomas Eakins/1903"
Exhibited: "Thomas Eakins: Art and Archive," Babcock Galleries, New York, October 29–December 5, 1992, color repro., n.p. Central High School Alumni Exhibition, Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia, April 14–July 7, 2002, no. 23, color repro., p. 8. Eakins to Schamberg, Glackens to KahnóA Common Bond, Union League Club, New York, August–September, 2002.
References: Lloyd Goodrich, "Catalogue of the Works of Thomas Eakins," Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin 25, no. 133 (March 1930), no. 317, p. 32. Lloyd Goodrich, Thomas Eakins: His Life and Work (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1933), p. 192, no. 346. Cover illustration for Pennsylvania Heritage 15 (Fall 1989). Philadelphia Portraiture: 1740–1910, Schwarz Gallery (November 1982), no. 1, color repro.

RS 986

Thomas Eakins is so well known that he scarcely requires any biographical introduction. He was born in Philadelphia, the son of a calligrapher and teacher of penmanship. Eakins studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and took anatomy classes at the Jefferson Medical College before going to Paris in 1866 for an extended period of study with Jean-Lťon GťrŰme (1824–1904) at the …cole des Beaux-Arts. After returning to Philadelphia in 1870, he painted a variety of subjects, including portraits, sporting subjects, scenes of everyday life, and historical events of local significance. Although Eakins produced 247 portraits during his career, he had neither the inclination nor the temperament to become a conventional society portraitist. The uncompromising realism of his The Gross Clinic (1875, jointly owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) shocked conservative critics, and the painting was rejected for exhibition in the Centennial International Exhibition in 1876, and relegated to the U.S. Army Post Hospital. The next year Eakins was involved in another controversy, this time over a portrait of Rutherford B. Hayes that had been commissioned for the Union League.1 A decade later he was forced to resign from his position as director of the schools and professor of painting at the Pennsylvania Academy because his insistence on requiring students to draw directly from the nude model offended late Victorian standards of propriety. Thereafter Eakins gradually withdrew from society, surrounding himself with a loyal circle of friends, students, and intimates. Eakins renewed his interest in portraiture in 1886, and began to select subjects who had distinguished themselves by their professional achievements as scientists, clergymen, musicians, and doctors. Few of these portraits were formally commissioned. As Kathleen A. Foster has observed: "Largely chosen by the artist, his subjects reflect Eakinsís affections and interests, his family and friends, the people he found pictorially or intellectually inspiring, and those who were patient enough to endure lengthy sittings."2 The subject of this portrait, John A. Thornton (1862–1936), was born in Philadelphia and educated in the public school system. He owned a meat and provisions business for twenty years, and was active in Philadelphia politics. Thornton was elected by the City Democratic Committee to be representative of the Twenty-fourth Ward in 1888, and became chairman of the committee in 1907. He was elected to a five-year term as police magistrate in 1899, and was appointed city real estate assessor by the Board of Revision of Taxes in 1908. The highlight of Thorntonís political career occurred in 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson successfully nominated him to the Senate for the position of postmaster of Philadelphia. He served in that capacity until 1922.3 Thornton was a close friend of the prominent Democratic politician and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Thornton died in his home at 3701 Hamilton Street, at the age of seventy-three. Painted in 1903, this portrait is one among approximately 145 life-size busts that Eakins painted over his long career. The compositions are stark, with the sitters posed against dark, empty backgrounds. Eakins was concerned with achieving accurate physiognomic likenesses of his sitters, and often imbued them with a serious, pensive quality. Here the portly Thornton is positioned far off-center to the left, his head in profile so that only the right side of his face is visible. He leans back very slightly and seems to be lost in thought. Eakins probably intended to represent him as a magistrate weighing a case in the courtroom, or at least to subtly allude to his profession. When Lloyd Goodrich saw the portrait, he opined that Eakinsís use of strong light from the left to illuminate Thorntonís head made him "look coarser than he is," but characterized it as a "fine paintingóbig in feeling."4 Unfortunately no documentation has yet surfaced to explain the circumstances that led Eakins to paint Thorntonís portrait, or to define the nature of their relationship. Eakins, who enjoyed a measure of critical acclaim during this period and had just been elected an academician of the National Academy of Design in New York, painted at least ten commissioned portraits between 1902 and 1905. In some cases, such as Robert C. Ogden (1904, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.) and Asbury W. Lee (1905, Reynolda House, Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina), the sitters were dissatisfied with the artistís efforts.5 In 1970 Thorntonís son informed Goodrich that his father and Eakins were personal friends, so the portrait may have resulted from that relationship.6 One tantalizing piece of evidence indicates that Thorntonís family objected to the likeness. When Goodrich saw the portrait in 1933, it was not in Thorntonís house but in the studio of Eakinsís former student and friend, the sculptor Samuel Murray (1869–1941). Goodrich recorded without further elaboration that "Mrs. Thornton wouldnít have it in the house, so he is taking care of it."7 There can be no doubt, however, that this is a powerful and representative example of Eakinsís late bust portraiture.


1. For a discussion of this incident see Gordon Hendricks, "The Eakins Portrait of Rutherford B. Hayes," American Art Journal 1 (Spring, 1969), pp. 104–114.

2. Kathleen A. Foster, "Portraits of Teachers and Thinkers," pp. 309–310, in Darrel Sewell, ed., Thomas Eakins [exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art] (Philadelphia, 2001).

3. The biographical information on Thornton is derived from four obituaries from Philadelphia newspapers in the Goodrich Papers and from Distinguished Men of Philadelphia and of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Press Co., 1913), p. 49.

4. Lloyd and Edith Havens Goodrich, "Record of Works by Thomas Eakins," Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Goodrich evidently failed to see the inscription and erroneously noted that the portrait was unsigned and undated.

5. For a recent discussion of Eakinsís portraiture during this period, see Gordon Hendricks, The Life and Work of Thomas Eakins (New York: Grossman, 1974), pp. 243–266; and Marc Simpson, "The 1900s," in Sewell, ed., Thomas Eakins, pp. 317–326.

6. Undated letter from the sitterís son John A. Thornton to Lloyd Goodrich, Goodrich Papers.

7. Goodrich Papers.


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