Thomas Eakins (American, 1844-1916),
Professor John Laurie Wallace
oil on canvas, 50¼ x 32½ , 127.64 x 82.5 cm
Gift of the James A. Douglas Memorial Foundation (1971), 1941.24
Today regarded as one of America’s greatest painters, in his time Eakins was frequently at the center of artistic controversy. His determined championship of science and scientific observation did not sit well with a public attuned to the natural splendors of landscape painting — especially that of the Hudson River School — and Eakins’ work was consistently deplored for its excessive realism.
Eakins entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1862, and in 1866 went to Paris to study further under the painter Jean-Léon Gérôme and sculptor Alexandre Dumont. Before returning to the United States in 1870, Eakins traveled to Spain, where he encountered the work of Velázquez and Ribera, whose trenchant realism and dramatic use of light were major influences on the young American artist.
From 1876 Eakins taught at the Pennsylvania Academy, where he revolutionized the teaching process and built a following of devoted students. He was dismissed in 1886 in a controversy involving the use of male nudes in a women’s life drawing class.
J. Laurie Wallace (1864–1953), born in Ireland of Scottish parents, was a student and favorite model of Eakins and appears in several paintings: notably as Christ in the Crucifixion, the zither player in Professionals at Rehearsal, and the central figure in The Swimming Hole. Using a raking light, Eakins places emphasis on Wallace’s striking facial features and large hands to create a quiet portrait of a sensitive man. Wallace himself worked in Chicago as an instructor at the Art Institute and director of the Society of Artists before moving to Omaha to head the Academy of Fine Arts. While that institution did not survive long, Wallace established a portrait practice in Omaha that flourished for nearly fifty years.