North Philadelphia: The Thomas Eakins House
A four-story townhouse in the Spring Garden section of Philadelphia was once home to one of the most influential American realist artists of the 19th century, Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins. The Thomas Eakins House, which sits on Mount Vernon Street between North 18th and 17th Streets, was built for his father, Benjamin, around 1854. Recognizing the son’s artistic talent, the elder Eakins added a fourth story studio built of wood to the brick home in 1874.
Eakins was born in Philadelphia on July 25, 1844, and around the age of ten-years-old, moved into the house on Mount Vernon Street. From 1862 to 1866, he was enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and attended anatomy lectures at Jefferson Medical College in the city. These experiences helped to inspire the young artist to dedicate his career to depicting the human figure in various art forms. In 1866, Eakins travelled to Europe where he studied art with European masters such as, painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme and portraitist Léon Bonnat. Inspired by his European travels, Eakins returned to Philadelphia in 1870, where he focused his artistic endeavors on expressing his admiration for athletes and outdoor activities. During this period, he also painted intense, brooding images as was depicted in his 1875 painting, The Gross Clinic.
Eakins accepted a teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1876. While serving in this role, he managed to cause quite a stir amongst numerous Victorian Philadelphia students and parents who were shocked that an educator focused much of his teaching lessons on artistic depictions of nude models. This controversy resulted in his dismissal from the school in 1886.
From 1887 until his retirement, Eakins focused on painting portraits and athletic scenes, as well as photography. Between 1898 and 1899, he expressed his admiration for the sport of boxing by completing three popular paintings: Taking the Count (1898), Salutat (1898), and Between Rounds (1898-1899). Around 1900, Eakins completed portraits of numerous individuals, friends, family, military officers, and religious figures.
In 1899, Thomas inherited his family home on Mount Vernon Street and lived there until his death on June 25, 1916 at the age of 71. Eakins is buried with his wife at the historic Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia. Unfortunately Eakins did not achieve the fame he deserved until after his death, when his art was well-received at shows in Philadelphia and New York. Thomas Eakins’ artwork is now housed at museums across the country. The Philadelphia Museum of Art houses the largest collection of his paintings, sculptures, and photographs in its American collections.
Eakins’ former home was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965, and now houses the Lincoln Financial Mural Arts Center. For over 30 years, this organization has “created art with others to transform places, individuals, communities and institutions.” Murals, such as the 1998 Peace Wall in Grays Ferry, inspire residents and help to spark important dialogue regarding issues such as racial tension. It seems appropriate that the former home of a man who inspired so many people with his works of art now houses an organization that continues to inspire residents of the city with their majestic murals.