Hundreds of people demand account of disturbing legacy of American artist Thomas Eakins

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Until last summer, the publicly accessible digital collections of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia included a disturbing photograph of a naked black girl lying on a sofa. The photo, which has since been removed from the PAFA website and is only available on request for research purposes due to its “sensitive nature”, was taken circa 1882 by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), one of Philadelphia’s most famous artists. Today, more than 200 artists, arts workers, philanthropists and others signed an open letter Calling on the Philadelphia municipal government, PAFA and other city institutions to “officially end their love affair with Thomas Eakins” by withdrawing public tributes and giving a fuller account of his actions, including the creation of operating images like Naked African American girl lying on a sofa.

“Remove the name Thomas Eakins from all landmarks. It is a privilege to be recognized by your community, not a right. Eakins lost that consideration, ”the letter reads in part. “Include a full account of Thomas Eakins in all historical and artistic records and why his name is removed from public statues and tributes.” The signatories include artists JaTovia Gary and Xaviera Simmons, the Guerrilla Girls collective and academic Fred Moten.

The campaign is led by artist and educator Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter, who wrote an op-ed published by the Philadelphia Investigator in October, denouncing the city’s reverence for Eakins despite evidence of his abusive and exploitative behavior. “What’s at stake here is people’s reluctance to heed these records of violence,” Baxter says. “Even in his day, people distanced themselves from Eakins. “

In an attempt to do some of the repair work that she believes the city and its art institutions have failed to do, Baxter created Consecration to Mary (2021), a series of photographic works developed using historical processes in which she protects and protects the girl in the image of Eakins. The series was included in the group exhibition The Collective: Selected family at the Martos Gallery in New York City earlier this year and will be on display at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, in April 2022.

Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter, Consecration to Mary (2021) Courtesy of the artist

“It’s a difficult photograph for people to take into account, so my task was to make it something that people could actually watch, reimagining those moments as they should have been, safe and protected,” explains Baxter. She approached PAFA last summer to get a high-quality image of the photo that she could work from, but says she is frustrated by the institution’s slowness and reluctance to include it in the processes it is making. she threw in response. “He was a sexual predator with such bad papers that PAFA made him quit – they didn’t want anything to do with him when he was in school.”

In 1886, the PAFA forced Eakins to resign from his teaching post after removing a male model’s loincloth in front of a drawing class. Biography of art historian Henry Adams in 2005 Eakins revealed: the secret life of an American artist details the patterns of sexual harassment and emotional abuse, as well as allegations that Eakins’ niece committed suicide after seducing her.

“PAFA supports efforts to offer counter-narratives to America’s traumatic stories,” a spokesperson for the institution said in a statement. “We believe this is a vital learning moment for our community at large. We have already initiated this learning with a program organized for our students at the beginning of the month, and we are in the process of setting up public programs with key visiting researchers, scheduled for the spring. We invite our civic and artistic colleagues to join us in this process.

Today, Eakins is revered throughout Philadelphia and its art institutions. Eakins’ Former Home and Workshop at 1729 Mount Vernon Street was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965 (it now houses the nonprofit public art Mural Arts Philadelphia). The large landscaped traffic island in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), which hosts the city’s annual celebration on July 4, is called the Eakins Oval.

PAFA’s collection includes over 850 of his works spanning photography, drawings and paintings. One of the main attractions of the PMA is its cinematic rendering of an operating room from the end of the 19th century, The Brute Clinic (1875), which the museum and the PAFA only kept in Philadelphia after a frenzied fundraising campaign in 2008, which involved the divestiture of works from their collections to help raise the $ 68 million that the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and the Crystal Bridges Museum had offered to acquire the painting.

In some circles Raw clinic is considered one of the greatest American paintings ever made, but the signatories of this month’s letter argue that any estimate of this canvas must also take into account Eakins’ actions and disturbing photographs like Naked African American girl lying on a sofa. They demand that these photos be transferred to an African-American institution and demand “a formal apology addressed directly to the black community”.

In late 2017, PAFA opted to keep an exhibition of photographs of Chuck Close after allegations of sexual misconduct against the artist has emerged. Rather than dismantling Close’s works, the institution organized a community forum and organized a pop-up art exhibit addressing issues of power and gender.

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