The son of a Philadelphia writing master and teacher of calligraphy, Thomas Eakins displayed artistic talent—most notably in mechanical drawing—even as a youth. Encouraged by his father to pursue a career as an artist, Eakins enrolled in classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and attended anatomy lectures and demonstrations at Philadelphia's Jefferson Medical College. In 1866, he became one of the first American artists to seek serious professional training in France—a practice that would later become commonplace—continuing his studies in the atelier of the noted historical and genre painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. Eakins also received instruction in sculpture and portraiture. Having completed his studies, and in ill health, he escaped the damp climate of Paris in the winter of 1869–70 to spend several months in Madrid and Seville, where he immersed himself in Spanish art before returning home.
Unlike many of his compatriots, who would seek their artistic inspiration in foreign lands, Eakins chose to document and memorialize the familiar. Settling in his parents' house in Philadelphia in 1870, he painted outdoor sporting scenes that included his male friends and meditative indoor scenes that featured his female friends and relatives. Even when an image appears to be merely a genre scene, it is rooted in Eakins's commitment to the specificity of portraiture, which would become his principal concern after 1886.
Today Eakins is closely identified with his depictions of rowers on Philadelphia's Schuylkill River, such as the great oil painting of 1871, The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull), and the meticulous watercolor of 1873–74, John Biglin in a Single Scull. But he also painted men hunting for waterfowl and fishing—such as Starting Out After Rail (1874, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and Shad Fishing at Gloucester on the Delaware River (1881, Philadelphia Museum of Art)—and playing baseball, as well as boxing.
The women Eakins painted were usually members of his family, friends, or pupils, and they were often shown in domestic settings. Two of his students served as models for The Pathetic Song (1881), which portrays a parlor concert and captures the moment at the end of a song. And family friend Weda Cook posed for one of his most ambitious and moving musical paintings, The Concert Singer (1891, Philadelphia Museum of Art). The artist's investigative approach required that Cook begin each of the more than eighty sittings by singing the same melody so that he could study the action of her vocal chords.
Eakins excelled at portraiture, but his insistence on repeated sittings—he orchestrated and scrupulously recorded every detail of pose, costume, and setting—was a process his subjects found tedious, despite the fact that the results were masterful and captured the sitter's essence. Potential patrons feared that Eakins's probing approach would ruthlessly reveal, rather than flatter; and even friends who agreed to pose as a favor to Eakins often declined to accept their portraits as gifts.
Eakins is also identified with medical portraits such as The Gross Clinic (1875, Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia) which shows the pioneering surgeon Dr. Samuel David Gross performing and commenting on surgery on a living patient. The public acclaim that Eakins hoped for when he completed his masterpiece did not materialize, although the work is now considered by many art historians to be the greatest American painting ever created.
Eakins's late portraits, such as The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton (1900), capture the introspection of his subjects at the same time they seem to reflect his own melancholy. Simple and vigorous, The Thinker is a probing, intensely realized image of an individual as well as an archetypal portrayal of modern man in the first year of the new century, a fact that is prominently proclaimed by the date, 1900, inscribed at the corner of the canvas.