A veteran painter argues that the nude motion studies of Muybridge and Eakins are unjustly notorious—when they should be celebrated for influencing generations of modern artists.
I wrote the first version of this article after seeing the Thomas Eakins exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2002. I wrote then, and I am writing now, because I believe that to analyze Eakins’s work as a reflection of the artist’s “conflicted sexuality” is a misreading of the evidence on the part of postmodern art historians who seem more interested in their sexually oriented interpretation of subject matter than in the paintings and photographs themselves as artistic creations.
I became aware of this tendency during the impromptu discussions I heard while on a walk-through of the exhibition with an invited group of curators, art historians, and artists. The talk, with little exception, concerned Eakins’s sexual orientation. He was being outed. The case for this reading was based on the photographs he had taken of a number of his male students naked and the fact that he had been photographed naked himself.
I spoke up to make the point that Eakins had been involved with the immense photographic project conducted by Eadweard Muybridge at the University of Pennsylvania during the 1880s. A selection from the hundreds of sequential series Muybridge had photographed were published in 1887 in the multivolume Animal Locomotion, which included animals and birds as well as humans. Among the men photographed naked was Muybridge himself. (Eakins may also have been among them. In a letter to Muybridge urging him to accept the university’s invitation to do the project there, Eakins offered to be a model.)
I believe that Eakins’s photographs of himself and his students naked were made simply as an extension of that documentary use of the camera. Sidney Kirkpatrick, in his book The Revenge of Thomas Eakins, goes into great detail about Eakins’s fascination with photography as a means of documenting the human figure and says that Eakins was appointed to oversee the Muybridge project for the University of Pennsylvania, which sponsored it. During this project, Eakins developed a camera that, while remaining in a fixed position, registered multiple exposures of the figure in motion overlapping on a single plate. Muybridge, on the other hand, used multiple cameras that registered single images and their place in the series, which were triggered by the forward motion of the subject.
According to Kirkpatrick, Eakins took hundreds of photos of the subjects with his own camera, but the university chose to publish only the sequential photos taken by Muybridge. There is no hint in Kirkpatrick’s book about what subsequently happened to Eakins’s photographic plates; a few positive prints from them are known.
Ultimately, Eakins was asked to leave his position as instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts because his fellow faculty members objected to his encouraging his students to paint from photographs rather than from the live nude model. He considered those photographs of naked people and animals useful as preliminary studies, as surrogate sketches.
My point was not well taken in the discussion at the Metropolitan that day. I am bothered, because by inference all male artists through the ages who have depicted male nudes would also be outed by the group of historians and curators who took part in the discussion—and that would be nonsense. The inclusion in that exhibition of Eakins’s photographs would have made far more sense if they had been placed in the context of Muybridge’s project of photographing the human figure in motion.
In fact I would like to see Eakins’s paintings of athletes and workmen in the context of an exhibition of Muybridge’s work. I believe that Muybridge’s photographic project had far greater influence on 20th-century culture than is usually realized, extending to literature and philosophy as well as the visual arts. His photographs made visible the obsession of early-20th-century writers and artists with the idea of simultaneity—the depiction of several events, mental or physical, occurring at the same time, as in the art of the Cubists and the Futurists.
Each of the plates in Animal Locomotion was designed by Muybridge individually. While each presents one or more naked persons performing an action—such as swinging a baseball bat or a sledgehammer, walking, jumping, or fencing—presented in a series of sequential photos arranged in a grid composed of strips of sequential photos, there is no routine arrangement of the strips. Each page is different in its layout. Muybridge arranged the sequences of photos to most clearly present the action of the individuals shown. On some pages, the person is viewed from the front across the top strip of the grid, from the side in the middle strip, and from the back in the bottom strip. In some plates, the back view is on top and the front view at the bottom. In other plates, there may be two strips of continuous action seen from the front view on top, while the lower strips are seen from a side point of view. Other plates are even more irregularly arranged. And there are some plates with two or three strips of continuous action seen only from one point of view. But in each plate, the figure is seen with its muscles changing shape as they function—in a manner previously not observable.
As a visual presentation of the human figure, it is the polar opposite of the self-contained single point of view depicted by Renaissance artists. Muybridge’s published sequential photos were taken at the time, 1887, as visual proof that everything in life changes. His publication marks the termination (in art at least) of the fixed certainties of the art of the Italian Renaissance.
Muybridge may not have been a great photographer in the artistic sense, but he certainly had great influence on the direction of the medium. His work changed the way the civilized world saw itself. Having first gained notoriety when he was tried for the murder of his wife’s lover (the father of her child), he achieved international fame for his sequential photos of a running racehorse that demonstrated that all four of the horse’s hooves were off the ground for a moment (winning a bet for the horse’s owner, who had commissioned the photos). Taking those sequential photos required a great deal of technical ingenuity and inventiveness on Muybridge’s part, and it is often claimed that they were the beginning of cinema.
Animal Locomotion includes sequential photos that reveal the muscular functioning of mammals, birds, and reptiles in the Philadelphia Zoo and of various breeds of horses pulling loads, walking, running, and racing, with and without riders. But most of the images are sequential photos of ordinary naked people engaged in various activities. The people were, among the men, students and instructors in the University of Pennsylvania’s athletic program and professional boxers. Among the women were professional artist’s models and dancers, and there were three or four children. A number of sequences show a variety of crippled people performing various movements. Most of the people are full-frontally naked, but some have the pelvis area covered. Sometimes the women dancers wear gauzy flowing costumes. The whole collection is astounding, accomplished as it was during the height of the prudery of the Victorian era. It was seen as being of great scientific interest.
I first came upon the elephant-sized volumes of Animal Locomotion in 1953, when I began doing research for my M.A. thesis on the work of Francis Picabia. Because Picabia and Marcel Duchamp were such close friends and exchanged ideas, I had to study the work of Duchamp as well. Their early modernist works, starting around 1909, involved depicting motion, influenced by the contemporaneous work of the Cubists and the Futurists. Duchamp’s painting Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912, shown at the 1913 Armory exhibition in New York, became the most notorious image involving motion at the time.
Looking for the source of that painting led me to the work of the French photographer Étienne-Jules Marey, who had exchanged ideas with Muybridge and Eakins. Duchamp’s painting was based on a diagram that was in turn based on an Eakins-like image of sequential superimposed shots on a single plate made by Marey. Marey later made Muybridge-like photographic sequences for Degas, which Degas used for a number of his later works. During the early 1960s, the Metropolitan Museum of Art displayed its collection of bronze castings from Degas’s wax sketches of a dancer in a sequence, revealing that they were based on sequential photos, probably taken by Marey. This information led me to the work of Muybridge himself. So, one afternoon in the reading room of the New York Public Library, this stack of huge, heavy books was clumped down on the table in front of me.
A surprising visual adventure began as I studied every page. At the time, I was painting Abstract Expressionist-oriented landscape images, and I would not have predicted my future dedication to the human figure. I did find the volume on normal humans performing ordinary activities the most interesting. It was far from an erotic experience, but rather one of overwhelming curiosity. During my years in the army in World War II, I had become quite familiar with the way my body felt during strenuous physical activity. Now I could look at the way the forms of the muscles change in activity. Also, as I had seen enough nudity, and been seen naked myself often enough (in the showers and during periodic inspections in which we all stood in line to be checked for venereal disease), that I could appreciate the anonymity conferred on us by being naked with others in a public situation.
Looking through Human Locomotion, I remember thinking, “So this is what we look like when we move in these ways.” And, most significant for an artist, “These photographic images of the body have nothing to do with anatomy diagrams published for artists.” Those anatomy diagrams typically have the human form standing at attention, but they are based on the dissection of corpses lying horizontally. The photographs in this book showed the forms of the body assuming ever-changing, unexpected shapes.
The next time I looked at those enormous books, I became interested in the character of the publication itself. For years, from 1946 through most of the 1950s, I had been earning a living working at what is now called graphic design: page layout, pasteup, and drafting—doing by hand all those things that are now done on computer.
I was struck first by the heavy black lines, about three-sixteenths of an inch wide, framing each image. If I were doing the mechanicals for the layout of these pages, I would have had to draft the grids and then to paste down each photographic print in the sequence. (I read years later that those grids were not drafted at all, but resulted when the small rectangles that were developed as negative images were attached to a large glass plate and the whole rephotographed for the printer as a positive image. The lines of the grid were simply the spaces between the photos on the small glass plates.)
I could imagine the grids without the photographs, and I decided that they would have looked like compositions by Mondrian. Grids dominate the experience of looking at Muybridge’s images of the figures in motion, because he also used grids as the backgrounds against which his models moved, so that their movements could be measured. And in the late 20th century, the grid itself became a dominant compositional device in painting and sculpture, especially in the works of many artists of the Minimalist movement.
The next thing that struck me as I studied the books was that on each page the grid was placed on a light-colored panel that was printed with generous margins of cream-colored paper. The effect was of three different colored rectangles—the cream color of the paper, the pale earth green of the background panel, and the black-and-white pattern of the grid with its photographs. The effect looked very modern. I would say it predicted the rectangle-on-rectangle color compositions of Josef Albers. It must have been seen as radically modern in its time, and it has had an enormous influence on page design since.
I later read about the lectures and demonstrations that Muybridge gave in the United States and, most significant, in Paris to persuade people to subscribe to his complete publication or order individual plates. Somewhere I came across a list of those who attended a demonstration/lecture in Paris, which included a number of prominent artists, many of whom ordered copies of individual plates.
Later, while casually leafing through books of late-19th- and early-20th-century art, I could pick out figures in paintings and sculptures created during the decade following Muybridge’s visit to Paris that I am certain had their origins in his photos. Among them were Degas’s sketches in clay of horses, Rodin’s walking figure of Saint John the Baptist (this resembles Muybridge’s photos of himself walking), and both the tumbling acrobat and the horse in Seurat’s The Circus (1890–91). The impulse for Rodin’s series of studies of disembodied hands may also have come from Muybridge.
There are several examples of Muybridge’s influence in Eakins’s work, such as the figures in his painting Wrestlers (1899). A Muybridge photo of wrestlers was used in recent times in paintings by Francis Bacon, who gave the image an erotic emphasis, the notoriety of which perhaps helped set Eakins up for the current onslaught of pseudo-psychoanalysis. Bacon also used several other Muybridge images, including those of a crippled boy and a dog.
I believe that both Muybridge and Eakins—as a photographer—should be recognized as among the most influential artists on the ideas of 20th-century art, along with Cézanne, whose lessons in fractured vision provided the technical basis for putting those ideas together. Their achievements as artists are far more interesting, significant, and promising as a field of study than is the concern over their sexual orientations.
Philip Pearlstein is a painter whose subject since 1960 has been the nude models posing in his studio.