In the span of years from 1870 to 1878 Thomas Eakins would paint some of his most memorable paintings; numerous images of men sculling on the rivers of Philadelphia, the allegorical painting of William Rush, and the striking “Gross Clinic.” In that period of time he would make a total of $140 from the sales of his paintings. In fact he never made a living selling his pictures, and yet now he is considered pivotal in art history in America.
Regarding the “Gross Clinic” which Eakins worked on for most of a year, Dr. Gross tired so much in posing for the painting that in exasperation shouted, “Eakins, I wish you were dead!” The large painting would be rejected from being part of the United States Centennial Exhibition in 1876, which Eakins had hoped to be included in, in hopes of securing his place as a vital American painter. The stark realistic rendering of the teaching hospital of Dr. Gross was too bloody for most. The painting would be exhibiting but not in the art hall but the Army Post Hospital exhibit. It hung on the wall of a mock hospital complete with paper-mache’ patients. A friend reported that Eakins nearly cried when he saw where it had been displayed.
I don’t mean to continue to the myth on the starving artist that doesn’t get notiritiy until there dead, but what I can say in reading biographies of artists as of late, it seems the art community runs about 60-70% correct on what it feels is “the best art” of the time. And different eras find one artist often more interesting than others; historical artist fall in and out of favor like fashion (were the French impressionist popular in the 80’s and 90’s or what?).
If I’m learning anything as of late it seems like much of what it is to be a successful artist is to keep dialoging with what has come before you, what is currently happening, and make what your heart calls you to create. As an artist you simply have a responsibility to make the work and let it be.
(The information given here on Eakins is from a wonderful little book: The Essential Thomas Eakins, by Alice A. Carter; Abrams Inc, New York 2001)