Thomas Eakins letters, 1866-1934

A Finding Aid to the Thomas Eakins Letters, 1866-1934, in the Archives of American Art, by Erin Corley

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Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Table of Contents:

Biographical Information

Realist painter Thomas Eakins was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1844. He was encouraged by his parents to develop his talent in art, and in 1862 he entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Also during this period Eakins developed an interest in anatomy, revealed later in the realistically detailed Gross Clinic, painted in 1875. In 1866 he moved to Paris, where he studied painting with Jean-Léon Gérôme at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts for three years, and briefly with sculptor Augustin-Alexandre Dumont and painter Léon Bonnat. He toured Spain for six months in 1870 and then returned to Philadelphia to become a portrait artist. Eakins began teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and became its director of instruction in 1882. During this period he also met fellow artist Susan MacDowell and they were married in 1884. While at the Academy, he promoted a curriculum based on the study of the human figure, and began using photography as a method of study for his paintings. A dispute over the use of nude models forced Eakins to resign from the Academy in 1886, but he continued painting and exhibiting until his death in 1916.

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Overview of the Collection

Scope and Contents

The letters of Thomas Eakins measure 0.2 linear feet and date from 1866 to 1934. They primarily document the period between 1866 and 1869 that he spent studying art in Paris, as well as his career as a portrait artist.

Arrangement and Series Description

Due to the small size of this collection, items are categorized into one series consisting of five folders. Items are arranged chronologically.

Subjects and Names

This collection is indexed in the online catalog of the Archives of American Art under the following index terms. People, families and organizations are listed under "Subjects" when they are the topic of collection contents and under "Names" when they are creators or contributors.


  • Gérôme, Jean Léon, 1824-1904


  • Portrait painting -- 19th century -- United States
  • Portrait painting, American
  • Painting, American
  • Painters -- Pennsylvania -- Philadelphia
  • Portrait painters -- Pennsylvania -- Philadelphia


  • Paris (France) -- Description and travel


  • Hallowell, William R.
  • Wallace, J. Laurie (John Laurie)
  • Crowell, William J.
  • Fussell, Charles Lewis, 1840-1909
  • Crowell, Frances Eakins, b. 1848
  • Richards, Frederick de Bourg, 1822-1903
  • Couture, Thomas, 1815-1879
  • Sartain, William, 1843-1924


Letters from Eakins to his family were donated by Dr. Caroline Crowell, daughter of Frances Eakins Crowell, and niece of Thomas Eakins. Other letters were donated in 1962 and 1963 by Irving Levitt and Lawrence Fleischman. Both accessions were microfilmed upon receipt.

How the Collection was Processed

The collection received some preliminary processing and was microfilmed upon receipt on reels 640 and 2803. The collection was fully re-processed, arranged and described by Erin Corley in 2005 and the bulk of it was scanned, with funding provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

How to Use the Collection

Restrictions on Use

The bulk of the collection has been digitized and is available online via AAA's website. Use of material not digitized requires an appointment.

Ownership & Literary Rights

The letters of Thomas Eakins are owned by the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Literary rights as possessed by the donor have been dedicated to public use for research, study, and scholarship. The collection is subject to all copyright laws.

Available Formats

The bulk of the collection was digitized in 2006 and is available online via AAA's website..

How to Cite this Collection

Thomas Eakins letters, 1866-1934. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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Detailed Description and Container Inventory

Series 1: Thomas Eakins Letters, 1866-1934
(Box 1; 5 folders)

Letters to his family include letters to his mother, father, future brother-in-law William ("Bill") Crowell, youngest sister Caroline ("Caddy"), and numerous letters to his younger sister Frances ("Fanny") Eakins Crowell. In the letters Eakins discusses his life in Paris, European political events such as the attempt to assassinate Emperor Alexander of Russia and rioting in Paris, working in Jean-Léon Gérôme's studio, and his opinions on Gérôme's artwork, including in a letter a sketch of the painting Dante (April 1, 1869). He also discusses Frederick DeBourg Richards and Thomas Couture, as well as his friendship with artist William ("Bill") Sartain who was also living in Paris at the time, and Fanny's friendship with Emily Sartain, also an artist. Also found is a photographic copy of a November 8, 1866 illustrated letter to his mother. Most of the letters are fragments with pages missing, and almost all include transcripts.

Miscellaneous letters include photographic copies of a fragment of an illustrated letter from artist Charles Lewis Fussell to Eakins, three letters from Eakins to former student John Laurie Wallace, and one letter, dated 1934, to Mr. Wallace from Susan Eakins, all transcribed. Also found are photocopies of three letters from Eakins to William ("Bill") Hallowell, a friend and portrait subject.

Box Folder
1 (pam) 1 Letters to Family, 1866-1867
1 (pam) 2 Letters to Family, 1868
1 (pam) 3 Letters to Family, 1869
1 (pam) 4 Letters to Family, circa 1866-1869
1 (pam) 5 Letters, Miscellaneous, 1866-1934