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Thomas Eakins's Precise Pen • Akela Reason

Brett Rawson


As the son of a writing master and a graduate of Philadelphia’s Central High School, Thomas Eakins understood the link between writing and drawing. Eakins learned his elegant copperplate hand from his father, a skill that was reinforced at Central in his drawing classes. To the nineteenth-century mind, good penmanship and draftsmanship were seen as interrelated skills that reflected clarity of thought. In fact, writing masters like Eakins’s father, Benjamin, often completed complex drawings crafted from the written text as a demonstration of their skill and confident control of the pen.

Official writing in the days before typewriters and photocopiers required the work of a professional writing master who would plot out the text to the scale appropriate for the document. The work of such writing in many ways mirrored Eakins’s own preparatory process as he plotted out his compositions with the same care, making few changes to his designs once they were established.

In order to prepare for his paintings, Eakins made some pencil sketches, detailed perspective drawings, and oil sketches to work out color and composition. He also used photographs to plot specific figures in his paintings. None of this work was visible to the art-going public, who saw only his finished works. Similarly, Eakins carefully drafted official correspondence in his elegantly trained hand, with all of the mental work coming before the pen was set to the final draft. These letters were usually brief and mistake-free. For his family and friends, however, he was much more carefree in his writing. His hand is casual, and one can see him thinking through cross-outs and insertions of text.

There is a clear divide between Eakins's public and private writing, just as there is between his public and private artwork. Occasionally Eakins injected his art with his formal, artful penmanship by adding his carefully crafted signature. These signatures flow in an elegant cursive that resembles his signature on formal documents, and they are plotted in perspective so that they become part of the painting, which gives some idea of the labor that Eakins took such pains to hide. 

While none of his works, written or painted, appear effortless, Eakins rarely revealed his thought process the outside eye, making his work appear uncannily precise. 


Akela Reason holds a Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Maryland. She is Associate Professor of History at the University of Georgia and the author of Thomas Eakins and the Uses of History, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

This essay was a part of our collaboration with The Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, Pen to Panel.