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Thomas Eakins & The Frequency Illusion

As a teenager, I spent many Sunday afternoons at St. Peter's Village, jumping the boulders strewn throughout the creek, swimming, hiking, eating ice cream, and playing pinball. The village itself occupies just about a quarter mile of road, with Victorian buildings overlooking French Creek and the woods behind it. Shops have closed, reopened, and changed hands over the years, but the character of the village remains the same. Now I take my children there in the warm months to chat with the antique store owner and buy sweets at the bakery. St. Peter's is a local treasure with historical significance (having revolved around an iron ore mining business in the late 1800's), but I'm not sure I've ever heard it mentioned outside of a 20-mile radius.

I've told Elaine, my friend at the antique store, to let me know if she happens upon any magic lanterns. A magic lantern projects a still image from a glass slide onto a screen or wall. Magic lantern shows were the predecessors of moving pictures. I first learned about them through the book Before the Movies, by Terry and Deborah Morton. The cover art caught my eye in a magazine ad. The book focused on the most prolific magic lantern slide artist, Joseph Boggs Beale. It also introduced me to his contemporary, Thomas Eakins. The two men competed for the position of drawing instructor at the prestigious Central High School in Philadelphia. Joseph Boggs Beale got the job. I tucked Thomas Eakins' name away in my mind, intending to look him up later.

When I noticed "The Eakins Press" printed on the cover of an obscure book I bought on eBay, I was prodded further, and further still when I learned about a summer festival series called The Oval. It was named for its venue: Eakins Oval, at the base of the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. By now it was clear that Eakins was a significant figure, and I was surprised to know nothing about him. This led me to discover the biography The Revenge Of Thomas Eakins, by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick. Despite being regarded now as one of the most important American painters in history, he was a controversial figure who was blacklisted by his peers and the Philadelphia art establishment. I had to read this book, eventually.

I was familiar with the concept of the frequency illusion, also known as the BaaderMeinhof phenomenon. You learn or become aware of something new, and it seems to begin popping up everywhere you turn. Most likely, it was there all along, like a ticking clock you suddenly can't ignore once it's called to your attention. This is how I categorized my experience with Eakins.

The idea that that there are mysterious powers at work in the universe is seductive. It's fun to consider this possibility when strange patterns emerge or the unexpected or improbable occurs, as it did when I was wandering the San Francisco MOMA with my wife some time (a few months, perhaps a year) later. A photograph caught my eye. It pictured two girls in dresses seated on a porch, one with her head resting in the lap of the other. I read the plate beside it:

Thomas Eakins

American, 1844-1916

Crowell Children at St. Peter's Village


Albumen print

It's very likely that I would never have seen this photo if I hadn't flown across the entire country with my wife to visit her friend. While Eakins made significant contributions to camera technology and leveraging photography in the painting process, few of his photographs are well known. This is not among them. The word amazed is overused, but I was sincerely amazed at the geographic length I had to go to in order to accidentally learn of his connection to that relatively obscure place I cherished.

Eakins was a rebel for the cause of advancing realism. As a teacher at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts, he used fully nude male models in coed classes. Even more shocking (even today), he and his students would dissect human cadavers in order to become intimately familiar with the human anatomy they sought to reproduce in their drawing, sculpting, and painting. He refused to flatter his portrait subjects, and in turn they sometimes refused the finished product. His now infamous paintings of surgeries, The Agnew Clinic and The Gross Clinic, were considered grotesque and ushered away from the public eye.

Despite experiencing frustration and depression from constant rejection, he remained committed to his methods and principals. The novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole (another great mind who didn't live to see his acclaim) opens with the quote from which the title originated:

"When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." - Jonathan Swift

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