Published: Jan. 2, 2003 By

[1]   BERELOWITZ: You make the argument that Eakins’s paintings are an attempt to negotiate – indeed, to refashion – Gilded Age conceptions of masculinity. Could you set out for us what was the dominant understanding of masculinity when Eakins was embarking on his career in the 1870s and what shift he sought to effect via his paintings?

[2]   BERGER: To put it in the most general terms, ideals of American manhood have consistently been rooted in issues of control; while the dominant model of manhood in the 1870s valorized a man’s ability to exercise external control over people and structures, the corresponding model of the 1890s prized his power to display internal control over his body. But the significance of my book lies less in charting the often-chronicled changes in masculine paradigms, than in illuminating historically specific examples of how individuals and communities effected localized, yet meaningful, changes in gender norms. One of my larger arguments is that Americans have always had at least an unconscious interest in refashioning conceptions of their gendered identities, given the importance we attach to gender and the impossibility of achieving the complex and often contradictory ideals of either masculinity and femininity. Both the essential “problem” and “promise” of gender is tied to its fluidity – by which I mean its tendency to assume distinctive properties based on its social contexts, its continual evolution over time, and the internal inconsistencies that are built into its norms. Unable to invent new masculine definitions, Eakins and his contemporaries took advantage of fluidity in gender ideals to selectively assemble a masculine paradigm that best supported their interests. Using art works as a site of ideological contestation, Eakins’s rowing canvases from the 1870s, for example, took advantage of masculinity’s contextual nature to heighten the manly tenor of sporting images by changing their media from print to oil paint and by switching their venue from sporting periodicals to fine art galleries; they also seized on the potential provided by masculinity’s evolving character to promote newly emerging notions of physical (over financial) success that better encapsulated the artist’s particular strengths; and they took advantage of latitude in how the balance between “head” and “hand” was appropriately defined to complement perceptions of his chosen profession.

[3]   BERELOWITZ: While the focus of your book is Eakins’s construction of masculinity, you also make a number of references to women and their changing roles during this period, and I would like to explore this a little with you. I was, for example, struck by your observation (7) that while Eakins shows men engaged in outdoor physical activity, he consistently shows women indoors in traditional female pursuits such as reading, playing a musical instrument, or playing with a child or animal. And yet, as you suggest, Eakins did experience women outside of these traditional roles and must have been aware that women were actively participating in sports. Indeed, you make the point (41) that Gilded Age women were encouraged to participate in the sport of rowing. I recall that some years ago when the art historian Linda Nochlin compared Eakins and Mary Cassatt – two contemporaries from Philadelphia whose artistic trajectories differed markedly – she presented Eakins as conservative in his treatment of women. Would you agree with this? Would it be fair to argue that while Eakins was actively engaged in negotiating masculinity, his concept of womanliness was more hidebound, more locked into a conservative understanding of the role of women?

[4]   BERGER: There is a tendency for scholars to read naturalistic paintings as windows into the culture in which they were produced, and to forget how art products (no less than literary products, or industrial products) are forged within proscribed discursive boundaries. A simple cataloguing of Eakins’s subject matter would lead one to conclude that middle-class white women possessed no physical life and few intellectual interests. Since Gilded Age audiences did not expect oil paintings to offer transcripts of day-to-day life, we can hardly be surprised that the resulting “record” of middle-class life does not reflect the reality experienced by most women, nor even Eakins’s understanding of women’s “appropriate” roles. Nineteenth-century audiences possessed very different expectations on the desired behavior of flesh-and-blood and painted women respectively. Despite Eakins’s continuing reputation as an artist who presents the “unvarnished” truth, his works consistently presented idealized views of his society. They may not have beenas idealized as many of his patrons wished, but they remained responsive to certain base line expectations of what fine art should and should not depict. Given my argument for how art may serve as a site for gender negotiation, there is an intuitive case to be made for how both Eakins and Cassatt worked within various fine art norms, yet how each pushed at the borders of those gendered ideals that caused them personal discomfort; the natural result being that each presents us with a more expansive understanding of appropriate roles for members of their respective sex. While I would agree with Nochlin that the most radical of Cassatt’s depictions of women present more progressive statements than anything appearing in Eakins’s canvases, I am not convinced that it is particularly useful to see Eakins as the more conservative artist in his treatment of women. Leaving Cassatt aside for a moment, the label distorts Eakins’s career, given that on the continuum of male artists he was rather progressive, both in many of his depictions and through his promotion of female artists in his teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy. But even in relation to Cassatt, the statement has little utility, given that of the two artists, she was responsible for producing the more conservative depictions of women. In other words, of all the images produced by the artists, Cassatt created both the most progressive and conservative depictions of females. Cassatt frequently rendered her women as decorative objects, or as idealized bodies made available for the viewer’s pleasure, which was never the case in Eakins’s art. While Cassatt will always be of great interest to art historians for her most politically progressive images, it is difficult to characterize the ideological tenor of her work without slighting its dizzying range.

[5]   BERELOWITZ: On several occasions, you refer to Eakins’s contemporary, Winslow Homer, who also constructed an image of American masculinity during the Gilded Age, albeit one very different from that of Eakins. You make the point that where Homer constructs American manhood in an escapist world of nature far from the social constraints that impacted the lives of America’s citizens, Eakins, for the most part, situates his men within, or close to, modern urban settings. Where Eakins, as you note (118) sought to acknowledge the economic and social realities of his day, Homer sought to escape them. Yet Homer was acclaimed by his contemporaries, while Eakins was under-appreciated. Indeed, the two men make a fascinating contrast. Could you comment on why Homer’s images of male escapism into nature appealed so much more to Gilded Age men than Eakins’s attempt to grapple with representations of masculinity in the social and economic fields?

[6]   BERGER: I argue that the commercial success of Homer had much to do with his willingness to downplay the increasingly corporate and bureaucratic culture that was characteristic of the closing decades of the nineteenth century. But since many artists who enjoyed far less success than Homer also neglected to picture the economic and social realities of their day, we need to be clear that it was not simply ignoring structural and discursive forces that assured the popularity of his paintings. The artist had a knack for providing simple, nonthreatening answers to culturally pressing questions. While both Eakins and Homer crafted canvases during the 1890s that addressed the masculine identity of protagonists – and by extension of viewers – Eakins illustrated the ways in which Americans were forged by forces that were largely outside of their control, while Homer suggested that identity was a matter of personal will. By conjuring up a fantasy of elemental manhood that was based on nothing more than the ability of a lone individual to transcend the ravages of nature, many of Homer’s late works appealed to the nostalgia of middle- and leisure-class Americans for “simpler” times, when the demands placed on men were seemingly straightforward. Just as many Americans today would rather hear that terrorist attacks on U.S. interests are grounded in the “evilness” of the perpetrators than deal with the complex geo-political realities that produced a given attack, so Gilded Age Americans were eager to see potentially destabilizing issues presented in the most comfortable possible framework.

[7]   BERELOWITZ: You make the point (8) that in both the 19thand 20th centuries, critics have consistently labeled Eakins’s work “manly” but do not analyze the ways that term was inflected. You also suggest that Eakins understood masculinity as “a developmental process”(4) which strikes me as unusual in a pre-Freudian era. How would Eakins have come by a concept of an unfolding masculinity?

[8]   BERGER: While it is certainly doubtful that either Eakins or his contemporaries could have articulated a theory of masculinity in these terms, it was my goal to explore how the lived reality of Gilded Age gender conditioned men and women to respond to it as a developmental process. It would be a mistake to assume that an inability to give conscious expression to the fluidity of gender precludes one from responding to its malleability. This claim may seem very limited. Since gender has always been a developmental process (whether people appreciated this reality or not), one might plausibly argue that all peoples have responded in historically specific ways to the lived reality of gender’s fluidity. But I suspect that my observation has unique meaning given that Eakins worked in the immediate pre-Freudian era. Because modern theories of gender did not invent themselves out of thin air in the twentieth century, it is useful to appreciate how their logic may have informed the actions of people in pre-Freudian societies. This was not because Eakins acted on psychological truths that were imbedded in his psyche and only later detected, but because like good bricoleurs, Freudians crafted their theories out of the ruins of older traditions. In pushing back the border of Freudian thought, I hoped to suggest the partial ways in which his theories must necessarily draw from the beliefs and experiences common to the decades immediately preceding their birth. Eakins lived at a moment when the intellectual raw materials for understanding gender as a developmental process existed, even though he and his society would have to wait for Freud to make such ideas concrete.

[9]   BERELOWITZ It is not common, today, to think of certainmodes of art as gendered in ways that 19thcentury viewers understood them as gendered. Realism, for example, was viewed as masculine. Yet, as you point out, this association ran the risk of being stigmatized as feminine if it included what contemporaries might have regarded as “conspicuous detail” (41). Eakins’s realist style thus in no way insulated him within a safety zone of masculinity and, indeed, you write about Eakins’s anxiety about the “detailed ‘ladies’s work’ of finished canvases.” It seems, given the gendered readings that art was subject to and the readiness of the public to categorize artists according to the ways that they seemed to engage with gendered modes, that the enterprise of art-making must have been agonizing for an artist eager to prove his masculinity. Could you elaborate on this?

[10]   BERGER: I suspect that it was. Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock have explored the processes by which professions and products were valued and given gendered codings based less on the value or character of the work performed than on the sex of their practitioners, yet they would not argue that the gendering of a given profession is wholly reducible to the sex of its “typical” members, or that all professions practiced by men are valued to an equal extent. In a patriarchal society, crude ideological pressures may relegate certain professions to a masculine or feminine category based on sex, though the complexities of gender coding ensure that even all-male professions may carry a feminine charge. Artists, clergy and academics have long labored in “feminine” professions, despite the reality that their members have typically been male, and that women experienced many impediments to joining their ranks. And then, as you point out, hierarchies may even exist within given professions based on historically contingent valuations placed on various media and modes of production. In 1870s America, for example, oil painting, Realism, and naturalism were consistently deemed more manly than water colors, Sentimentality, and abstraction. But in categorizing and ranking various professions according to gendered ideals, there is also a way in which we can exaggerate the precariousness of a male artist’s position in Gilded Age society. While it is true that being an artist was not the most masculine of pursuits, and that even manly artists did not enjoy the masculine cache of average soldiers, Eakins spent most of his time in the art world, where his relative masculinity would have been unmistakable. From a practical standpoint, it probably mattered less to Eakins and his peers that he was not the most masculine man in America, than that he was one of the most masculine within his confined artistic circle.

[11]   BERELOWITZ You claim that Eakins strove in his paintings of athletic themes to articulate a shift that was occurring in the 1870s in the societal understanding of male identity. If I might paraphrase you, you suggest that by thematically embracing a world of physical activity, Eakins was participating in a rhetoric that sought to balance mental and physical exertions, thereby postulating a concept of masculinity that was more balanced than one that stemmed solely from career success. One might have thought, given that his works served as sites through which to rework his – and his audience’s – masculine identity, that they would have met with popular acclaim. But this was not the case. Eakins did not meet with significant success during his lifetime. How would you explain his lack of success in spite of his articulation of an emerging discourse about masculinity?

[12]   BERGER: That is something of a paradox. In claiming that Eakins’s paintings exhibit an emergent masculine ideal, I effectively follow a long line of twentieth-century critics who have embraced Eakins as theparadigmatic artist of nineteenth-century America. For many modern scholars, the painter captured the essential qualities and issues of Gilded Age society, notwithstanding his dearth of paying customers, lack of distinguished students, retrograde style, and the scant influence he exerted on the course of American art during his lifetime. We can explain this apparent paradox in one of two ways: We may posit that Eakins encapsulated his era in an accurate, yet socially unappealing manner. As I suggested above, his articulations may have simply been too direct to please his contemporaries. But since I argue that the artist sought not rebellion, but metaphoric resolution in his canvases – in the hope of crafting a more comfortable subject position for himself – it is difficult to reconcile how the canvases were both sites for resolving nagging contradictions in masculine definitions and unpopular. If the metaphoric work that I detect in the paintings had meaning for Gilded Age audiences, then why did more of Eakins’s contemporaries not celebrate his canvases? The second answer is closely tied to the ways in which Eakins’s lack of success has typically been defined. We know that Eakins’s rowing canvases were widely exhibited during his lifetime, and yet we tend to judge them as unpopular because upper-middle- and leisure-class critics and patrons did not express admiration for them with either their art reviews or their check books. But if the appeal of the works was limited to men who more closely approximated Eakins’s economic station – say lower middle to middle class – then the absence of surviving expressions of approval would hardly appear surprising, given that such men possessed only ephemeral outlets for articulating their reactions to the fine arts. Given our severely limited ability to recuperate the reactions of a range of nineteenth-century audiences, we actually know very little about what viewers who happened not to be leisure-class Christian European-American men from the northeast thought of his works. It is my suspicion that many “silent” Americans found much to laud in Eakins’s images.

[13]   BERELOWITZ As a student of museums and exhibitionary spaces, I was fascinated to read in your book that the masculinity of Eakins’s paintings acquired an added charge when viewed within the femininely inscribed spaces of the art gallery. Their masculinity had been far less remarkable when they were viewed in traditional male venues, as was the case with the controversialGross Clinic of 1875, first viewed by a broad public as part of the army’s medical displays at the Centennial Exhibition. Christoph Grunenberg has written about an increasing tendency in the early 20th century to reclaim exhibitionary venues from associations with “feminine frivolity.”1 Would you insert Eakins as a significant player in the masculinization of femininely inscribed exhibitionary spaces?

[14]   BERGER: My argument on how the masculinity of Eakins’s canvases was heightened within the femininely charged space of the gallery is to some extent predicated on the artist’s inability to significantly alter the resonances of the museum. After all, the masculinity of Eakins’s paintings was partially grounded on the gallery having feminine associations – without this symbolic contrast, Eakins’s paintings would have been much less remarkable. It might nonetheless be possible to argue that a collateral effect of Eakins’s art (and of the distinctive architecture of Frank Furness’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) was the ultimate masculinization of high art exhibitions. But it is intriguing to note Grunenberg’s claim for how the sponsors and architects of MoMA fought against the same feminine associations of display in the 1930s. This leaves one to wonder whether the museum had “lost” its masculinity in the intervening years, or whether male artists and patrons simply possess a never-ending need to imagine the ways in which they can save art from the dreaded, yet essential, “feminine frivolity.”

[15]   BERELOWITZ I’m curious as to why you don’t discuss homoeroticism or homosexual desire in relation to Eakins’s representations of nude men. Indeed, your approach seems to be in a direction away from such a discussion, especially with Eakins’s Swimming Hole of 1885 about which you argue that “Despite their obvious physicality, the men of Swimming aspire to that which is expressly not bodily. In the masculine economy of the painting, the men seek to emulate the ideological construction of Eakins, who is pointedly depicted without a body; he is the one figure in the canvas whose physicality is visually obscured by his immersion in the lake.” (97) And a little later on you state that “The nudity in Swimming was simply a sign of the students’ allegiance to Eakins’s methods, offering visual and ideological affirmation of what was essentially the painter’s atelier.”If the painting disturbed Eakins’s contemporaries – and it clearly did – how are we to understand its contribution to the discourse about Gilded Age manhood? Given that you don’t directly discuss the homoerotic content of Eakins’s paintings in the book, I’m curious that you chose to address it when you recently spoke at the Eakins symposium at Stony Brook’s Manhattan Center in June of 2002. Could you comment?

[16]   BERGER: When I initially conceived of the project I was determined not to get bogged down in the “is he or isn’t he gay” debate that has been at least a sub-text of Eakins scholarship for the past two decades. Since my interest was not in producing a biography, but a cultural history, I focused my analysis on those representative social pressures against which the artist and his contemporaries struggled, rather than in speculating on the sexual orientation of this particular individual. I wanted to highlight those structures and discourses that impacted the artist’s sense of self, regardless of his “true” orientation. Thus Eakins emerges in my study as an individual with a sexual identity, only to the extent that he was forced to articulate a position in relation to the powerful social ideal of heterosexuality. Given our modern reflex to see homosexuality in practically every image of naked men, I was intent on exploring what nude male figures could possibly say about heterosexual masculine identity. I remain convinced that the homoerotic charge that modern viewers readily identify inSwimming had nothing to do with the discomfort that the painting caused Gilded Age audiences. While nineteenth-century critics could obviously not have articulated their displeasure with the canvas’s homoeroticism in such straightforward terms, their reviews contain none of the coded appellations – such as “vulgar” and “tasteless” – which would readily have communicated their discomfort with the work’s sexual theme. That being said, I have come to see my avoidance of the image’s homoeroticism as a missed opportunity to deal with the cultural work that same-sex desire performs for the dominant culture, for seeing homoeroticism in the image is surely not the same thing as delving into a discussion of the artist’s sexual orientation. The Stony Brook symposium afforded me the opportunity to revise my thinking on Eakins and to speculate on what our virulently masculinist and heterosexual culture has at stake in finding and talking about homoerotic art. While there was a time when gay and lesbian art was not a topic to be discussed in undergraduate classes, I find that my students today find few topics as engrossing. It is my suspicion that straight America desperately wants homoerotic art, not just so it can point out deviance and feel secure in its own normalcy, but because the strictures of being straight strip from one’s life a sensuousness for which homoerotic images can partially compensate. Without suggesting that same-sex genital contact is the ultimate goal of all heterosexual men, I maintain that heterosexual norms constrain those who identify themselves as straight from acting on a range of same-sex desires for physical and emotional intimacy. The freer exchange of touch and emotion that straight men at leastimagine are characteristic of gay interactions – and which are permitted straight men only within a few highly ritualized contexts associated primarily with sports and mourning – are arguably a normal component of human expression. With this reading in mind, there is a temptation to hold up Eakins’s seemingly radical paintings of naked male swimmers, wrestlers, and boxers as utopic models of male interaction. In many ways, they appear to exhibit the sensuality that a cultural critic might prescribe as an antidote to a heterosexual lifestyle choice. And yet, it’s clear that their current cultural function is actually quite the opposite. In the twenty-first century, Eakins’s paintings serve as a psychological crutch for straight America, by providing just enough erotic excitement to allow men a socially acceptable source of stimulation without ever disrupting the rigid codes of their heterosexuality. In providing what might be called a “homoerotics for heterosexuals,” they are the guilty pleasure that helps make the current system work.

[17]   BERELOWITZ Are you continuing to work on constructions of manhood and, if so, where is your research now taking you?

[18]   BERGER: I am in the process of completing a book that explores how American visual culture (painting, photography, architecture, and film), is implicated in the construction of white racial identity. While this project is quite distinct from my book on Eakins, both topics stem from my interest in how privileged markers of identity tend to circulate in our society as natural and hence unseen. In this regard, whiteness is a nearly perfect subject, for there is perhaps no social product more thoroughly naturalized in our culture.


Works Cited

  • Grunenberg, Christoph, “The politics of presentation: the Museum of Modern Art, New York,” Art Apart: Art Institutions and Ideology Across England and North America, ed. Marcia Pointon, Manchester, 1994
  • Nochlin, Linda, “Issues of Gender in Cassatt and Eakins,”Nineteenth Century Art: A critical history, ed, Steven Eisenmann, London: thames and Hudson, 1994 and 2002.
  • Parker, Rozsika and Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology. London: Pandora Press, 1989.