William Rush and His Model

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G-109. William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (1876–77), Oil on canvas, 51.1 cm x 66.3 cm (20-1/8 in x 26-1/8 in), Philadelphia Museum of Art.

William Rush and His Model is the name given to several paintings by Thomas Eakins, one set from 1876–77 and the other from 1908. These works depict the American wood sculptor William Rush in 1808, carving his statue Water Nymph and Bittern for a fountain at Philadelphia's first waterworks. The water nymph is an allegorical figure representing the Schuylkill River, which provided the city's drinking water, and on her shoulder is a bittern, a native waterbird related to the heron. Hence, these works are also known as William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River.

Eakins and Rush[edit]

Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River (aka Water Nymph and Bittern) by William Rush (posthumous bronze casting, 1872), as installed near Fairmount Waterworks.

Eakins's interest in William Rush originated from a desire to restore Rush's name to prominence in the history of American art. Eakins taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, of which Rush had been a founder. Eakins was a strong believer in teaching human anatomy, and insisted that his students study from nude models. Since it is unlikely that Rush had employed a nude model for his sculpture of a draped water nymph,[1] the painting may be viewed as Eakins's demonstration of the importance of studying anatomy from nudes.

In 1872, Rush's statue of Water Nymph and Bittern was stripped of its white paint, and a bronze copy was cast to be the centerpiece of a fountain near the Fairmount Waterworks. Eakins was able to study both versions, and his notes document the deteriorated condition of the wooden original. Only its head survives, in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.[2]

1876–77 versions[edit]

As part of his process of creating the painting, Eakins carved wax studies of the nymph, her head, Rush's head, the nude model, and the other Rush sculptures depicted. Five of the six wax studies survive, in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA).[3]

Eakins's key to G-109. Drawn for an 1881 exhibition catalogue. Hirshhorn Museum.

At Yale University Art Gallery is what appears to be an abandoned version of the painting (G-111), presumed to pre-date the PMA version. This is sometimes called a study, but it is almost the same size as the PMA version, contains the same figures (although the chaperone faces a different direction), and was never displayed during Eakins's lifetime.

At the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine is an oil study for another composition (G-110). The model stands on a higher pedestal, and the chaperone has been placed between the model and Rush. Judging from a photograph in a 1938 auction catologue, G-110 seems to be cut down from a larger study.[4]

The finished version of William Rush and His Model (G-109, Philadelphia Museum of Art) has the model slightly rotated, and the chaperone to the model's right, facing Rush. In the foreground, between Rush and the model, stands a chair conspicuously displaying the model's clothes. Rush’s life-sized figure of George Washington (1815), and his Allegorical Figure of The Waterworks (1825)—a reclining female figure manipulating a waterwheel—are visible in the background. Although the painting is historically inaccurate—Rush carved Water Nymph and Bittern in 1808, and the other statues years later—Eakins's intent seems to have been to present a survey of the sculptor’s whole career.

The painting was first exhibited in January 1878 at the Boston Art Club, and later that year at the Society of American Artists in New York.[1] It immediately sparked controversy with one New York reviewer writing, "What ruins the picture is much less the want of beauty in the model ... than the presence in the foreground of the clothes of that young woman, cast carelessly over a chair. This gives the shock which makes one think about the nudity—and at once the picture becomes improper”.[5]

Sketches and preparatory studies[edit]

1908 versions[edit]

For unspecified reasons—possibly related to the statue's centennial—Eakins returned to this subject in 1908. His first 1908 version (now in the Brooklyn Museum) is similar to the PMA version, however, Rush and his statue have been moved to the far right, the chaperone is to the model's left, facing the viewer, and the pile of the model’s clothes has been eliminated. This is the least successful composition, with little visual connection between Rush and the model.

The second 1908 version (in the Honolulu Museum of Art) shows a frontal view of the nude model descending the platform. She is neither idealized nor sentimentalized.[6] Rush is now out of the shadows and holding the model's hand as if helping a grand lady descend from a carriage.[6] The chaperone and background sculptures are omitted from this version. The figure of Rush is said to have Eakins' features.[7]

G-445. 1908, Brooklyn Museum.
G-451. 1908, Honolulu Museum of Art.

Preparatory studies[edit]

References[edit]

  • Ellis, George R., Honolulu Academy of Arts, Selected Works, Honolulu, Honolulu Academy of Arts, 1990, 227.
  • Ellis, George R. and Marcia Morse, A Hawaii Treasury, Masterpieces from the Honolulu Academy of Arts, Tokyo, Asahi Shimbun, 2000, 110 & 211-2.
  • Johnson, Lincoln F., The Beginning of Modernism, Honolulu Academy of Arts Journal, Vol. 3, 1978, 17–23.
  • Philadelphia Museum of Art, Handbook of the Collections, Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995, 287.
  • Sewell, Darrel (Ed.), Thomas Eakins. Yale University Press, 2001, 332. ISBN 0-300-09111-7

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995, 287
  2. ^ William Rush, American Sculptor, exhibition catalogue, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1982, pp. 114–17.
  3. ^ Susan James-Gadzinzki and Mary Mullen Cunningham, American Sculpture in the Museum of American Art of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, University of Washington Press, 1997, pp. 90–93.
  4. ^ 1938 auction catalogue photo from SIRIS.
  5. ^ Sewell, 2001, p.45
  6. ^ a b Johnson, 1978, p. 21
  7. ^ Ellis, 2000, p. 212
  8. ^ The Model from Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.