The last great landscape created by Thomas Eakins, Cowboys in the Badlands is a magnificent summation from a career of one of America's premier realist artists. Eakins demonstrated a new modern approach to the depiction of landscape, portraiture, and genre paintings that have become important representations in American Art.
Eakins began his artistic career in 1862 at the nation's oldest art institution, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he would remain for four years. During this time, Eakins became engrossed in the otherwise formal classes of art instruction that centered on sketches of the human anatomy. Eakins was a bright young man and inquisitive student, and as a result he quickly sought broader knowledge of artistic trends abroad, outside of the Academy's rigid training.
Upon arriving in Paris in 1866, Eakins was accepted into the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts. While at the school, a lasting and influential friendship with artist and professor Jéan-Léon Gérome began. Although the Ecole could still be viewed as a conventional institute, Gérome and his comrades were often seen as revolutionaries, having "turned their backs on grand figure paintings with heroic classical themes in favor of genre subjects portrayed with refinement and sophistication." (W.I. Homer, Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art, New York, 1992, p. 28) Perhaps the most important influence on Eakins was Gérome's unique manner in which he researched and prepared each painting: utilizing pencil sketches, oil studies, hand-written notes and photographs to effectively capture his subject matter to in turn create powerful compositions.
During the 1870s, having returned to Philadelphia, Eakins continued to take anatomy classes while painting some of his most recognized works, including his famed sculling pictures and monumental painting The Gross Clinic. During this time, Eakins began to teach, first at the Art Student's Union and then at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he would become Director in 1882. Eakins, however, would soon be forced to resign because of highly contested conflicts with the Board of Directors.
In 1887, the year after he left the Academy, Eakins was invited by friend and patron Dr. Horatio C. Wood to spend time at the B-T Ranch, located at the edge of the Badlands in the Dakota Territory. "I am going to take a little trip to the West" he wrote friend John Laurie Wallace in 1887. The ten weeks that followed his arrival to the B-T Ranch witnessed a creative output that re-energized the artist. Eakins immersed himself in ranch life: participating in daily chores, long rides into the Badlands, preparing meals and generally involving himself in the cowboy lifestyle. An exciting aspect of ranch life was Eakins' longtime fascination with horses. Although he had used horses as examples for his students while teaching anatomy classes, "the study of docile eastern steeds in city parks hardly prepared him for the sight of rambunctious western horses in action." (S. May, Southwest Art, "Thomas Eakins: Western Archetypes", February 1995, pp. 64-65) In fact, when he returned to Pennsylvania, Eakins brought back with him two horses from the ranch, the same two horses depicted in Cowboys in the Badlands, the bronco "Billy" and Indian pony, "Baldy".
Although Eakins planned to lay the groundwork for a series of "cowboy pictures", he only produced a limited number of finished works on this subject from his visit. Eakins completed several small studies of the distinct landscape of the region, as well as detailed drawings and photographs of ranch life and the cowboys' interaction with one another. Eakins' modern approach of utilizing the photographic image as a sketching device would effectively allow him to prepare his composition and arrange the overall scene accordingly. These studies would prove pivotal to the vitality of Cowboys in the Badlands. (fig. A)
Kathleen A. Foster notes that "Eakins' pictorial strategy was just as modern as his theory of local subject matter, for it allied rigorous academic methods with the newest technology: photography. With characteristic efficiency, Eakins used his oil paints only to capture the broad colors of sky and landscape, sunlight and shadow." The artist would then employ his camera to acquire the subtle gestures of the figures and the detailed positioning of the cowboys with their horses to successfully record the most natural pose of his subjects. As innovative Eakins' mingling of photography and painting was, the use of photography in painting was not a widely accepted practice at the time. "By the 1860s, painters of widely diverging styles and ideologies had made photographic studies part of their standard practice, although the admission of such use, and the overt emulation of certain photographic effects had come under critical attack. After warm acceptance by painters in the 1840s, the incursion of photographic aids and photographic effects had produced a confusion between the aims of 'art' and the capabilities of the camera, leading some artists to reject, deny, or suppress their photographic sources." (K.A. Foster, Thomas Eakins Rediscovered, New Haven, Connecticut, 1997, p. 108.) Eakins was one of the few artists who embraced the medium of photography to align himself with the study of nature to produce his own brand of realist painting. "The 'big artist' he asserted to his father in a letter of 6 March 1868, 'does not sit down monkey-like and copy a coal scuttle or an ugly old woman' but instead learns form nature in order to 'sail' on a parallel course, following nature's truth and using 'her tools', without attempting to re-create nature on canvas." (as quoted in Thomas Eakins Rediscovered, p. 108)
"Much richer than his contribution to photography alone was Eakins' integration of the camera into a creative process that united and produced work in all media. Always elaborate, this art-making method reached a height of complexity in the early 1880s, after the incorporation of photography expanded his technical repertory to its widest." (Thomas Eakins Rediscovered, p. 120) The style in which Eakins rendered several of his oil studies indicates reliance upon both photographs and sketches from the subject itself. To capture the tones of the landscape as well as the light and shadow on his sitters, Eakins produced several scaled oil sketches, where a transfer grid is evident. (fig. B) However, it is noted by some art historians that the brushwork is unexpectedly confident for a sketch such as this, indicating the additional use of photographs.
Eakins completed the finished version of Cowboys in the Badlands when he returned to Crowell Farm in Avondale, Pennsylvania where he would have undoubtedly relied upon both photographs and oil sketches to fully realize the final composition. To accurately capture the figural groups he had witnessed at the ranch, Eakins brought home with him the two horses, Billy and Baldy, as well as several articles of the cowboys' clothing to dress his models. As a result of this ability to paint directly from his subjects, Eakins executes the foreground group with exquisite detail. Furthermore, as these figures were completed from life, the composition of Cowboys in the Badlands becomes a unique juxtaposition of figure versus landscape. The focused detail of the figures in the foreground, contrasted to the slightly out-of-focus distant landscape invokes a very modern approach to painting with the use of photographic effects to establish a blurred distance to reinforce an overwhelming sense of space.
Similar to his other famed series of works of the Gloucester fisherman and the Arcadians, Eakins produced background photographs of the landscape in and around the ranch, many of which are now lost. Based on letters and notes in his journals, the panoramic view of Cowboys in the Badlands is presumably based on photographs Eakins took on September 24th or 25th while exploring the buttes in the immediate surrounding area. (fig. C) Images such as this reveal the distinct landscape in which Eakins was working. These photographs lend a better understanding to the unique forms and sense of scale and distance in which Eakins was absorbed. Although the background of the Badlands is a great expanse, Eakins manages to lend a quiet tone to this masterwork. "Eakins' cowboys simply gaze at their hallucinatory landscape with a kind of indeterminate calm. The fact that they are so completely at ease in such an environment may be the understated message of the painting." (Thomas Eakins Rediscovered, p. 195)
In Paris during the 1860s, many prominent artists including Manet, Gérome, and Eakins, were intrigued by the distinct Spanish culture and specifically that of the image of the bullfighter: a cultural icon distinguished by his color, tradition, and majesty. Although he is not known to have ever completed a bullfighter painting, Eakins sought similarly iconic figures at home for subject of his works, turning to the lives of representative personages including rowers, baseball players, and eventually cowboys.
Enthusiasm for the West was becoming increasingly popular among the general public with a greater number of ranches and visitors evident throughout the Dakota Territory. This popularity was spurred on by the series of articles on the region published by Teddy Roosevelt and illustrated by a young artist, Frederic Remington. Having immersed himself so deeply within ranch life and the disappearance of cowboy life, Eakins' work resonates with a perhaps a deeper gravity. "These pictures demonstrate Eakins' fascination with the ranch life and its characters and provide a trove of images for historians of art, photography and the American West." (Thomas Eakins Rediscovered, p. 190) Cowboys in the Badlands would be the crowning achievement from this significant time in the history of the American West and of Thomas Eakins.
Artists throughout the nineteenth century insistently continued to try and document the physical beauty and range of substantive meaning invoked by the West. Carefully composed, Cowboys in the Badlands distinguishes itself by recording both the passing American icon of the cowboy as well as the pride of a still unspoiled landscape. The natural sublimity of the West has occupied Eakins and inspired a masterful portrayal of light and space.
The key members of the Hudson River School, including Frederic Edwin Church, Sanford Robinson Gifford, John F. Kensett, among others, established a new consciousness of the American landscape and the notion of luminism in their paintings in the second half of the nineteenth century. Characterized by atmospheric light and dramatic scenes of open vistas, these works offered "revealing insights into American attitudes towards nature and the national identity during a crucial period of the country's development." (J. Wilmerding, American Light: The Luminist Movement 1850-1875, Washington, D.C., 1980, p. 11) Beginning in the 1870s, the lumist movement would give way to a "new, more sober realism> evident in the work of Eastman Johnson, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Eakins." None the less, the concerns and vocabulary of luminism continued to exist throughout the 1880s and 90s, especially in the work of Eakins. In Cowboys in the Badlands a soft, even light falls across the open passages of land to a distant horizon. The moody optimism displayed in the work reveals much about Eakins's sober theme while revealing the innate spiritual beauty of the American landscape.
Cowboys in the Badlands is distinguished by the monumentality of the scene and its distinct sense of space. Intellectuals of the day were often preaching for the need to differentiate American art and culture from that of Europe. Western themed paintings effectively fit this attitude of American artists' seeking to depict a native, divergent landscape. In the present work, by choosing a raised vantage point, Eakins elevates the landscape to grandeur in part with the overwhelming scale of the canvas itself. The unique physical structures of the Badlands landscape seem to dissolve into each other as amorphous forms and diagonals lead the viewer deep into space. The overwhelming visual portrayal of this unique Western landscape is integral to the overall success of Cowboys in the Badlands.
Cowboys in the Badlands is an incomparable realization for Eakins, combining open stretches of landscape that reflect the overwhelming scale of nature's presence in the West, along with a close, exact study of the cowboys and their horses, including a detailed rendering of the saddles, ropes and reins. Eakins has used broad washes of warm earth tones to capture the unique landscape of the Badlands region. W.I. Homer notes that "Cowboys in the Badlands is painted in much higher values than most of Eakins' landscapes. Faithfully conveying the way the intense light of the sun bleaches the already pale colors of the terrain. As in so many of his pictures, the figures are reflective, quiescent. It is tempting to interpret the painting as an unconscious rendering of Eakins' own emotions: the cowboys are very like his proxies, meditating on an alien and lonely expanse that may have symbolized the unknown future that lay ahead of him." (Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art, New York, 1992, p. 204-205). (fig. D) This sensitive realization of form helps to project a personal touch on a large canvas imbued with expansive color and space. The existential isolation and quiet tone of the work set against this brilliant background matches the mood of introspection seen in much of Eakins' work after 1876.
Painted just four years after his other masterwork of a much lighter tone, The Swimming Hole, Cowboys in the Badlands marks a shift in the mood of Eakins' work. "Now the greens of his palette are drained and thin, the space is empty and desolate, the figures starkly silhouetted and isolated. Although this trip was intended to revitalize himself, we nonetheless feel Eakins' mood of gravity." (J. Wilmerding, Thomas Eakins and the Heart of American Life, London, 1993, p. 28). The sense of place becomes much more apparent in this work and as a result, contributes a deeper overall meaning to the painting. In earlier works by Eakins, the landscape typically served as a backdrop. However, in Cowboys in the Badlands, the landscape explodes to the front, encompassing the vast space of the canvas while complementing the tight figural study of the two men viewing the open expanse. The work of Thomas Eakins is a combination of vast scientific and artistic knowledge and experimentation that propelled him to create a unique brand of realist painting. "Translating visual perception into an illusionistic pattern on a two- dimensional surface is the great artifice of realist painting. In Eakins' work, this process was extended and subdivided in preparation and execution. He clearly enjoyed rationalizing the process by which the wholeness of experience is rendered into art, effectively maximizing the level of artifice while driving toward an honest and natural effect." (Thomas Eakins Rediscovered, p. 230) Cowboys in the Badlands would be the last outdoor subject Eakins painted and stands as a monumental work of one of America's most brilliant painters.
Cowboys in the Badlands
Oil on canvas
Property from a Northeast Estate
Signed and dated 'Eakins 88' (lower right)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Faculty Club of the University of Pennsylvania, 1901
New York, Macbeth Gallery, 1935, no. 5
San Francisco, California, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, Exhibition of American Paintings, 1935, no. 108
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, A Century of American Landscape Painting, 1938, no. 52
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Thomas Eakins, 1944, no. 42, illustrated
Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, American Processional: 1492-1900, 1950, no. 292, illustrated
New York, The Century Association, Eakins-Homer Association, 1951, no. 8
Saint Louis, Missouri, Saint Louis City Art Museum, Westward the Way: The Character and Development of the Louisiana Territory as Seen by Artists and Writers in the 19th Century, 1954, pl. 181
New York, American Academy of Arts and Letters, Thomas Eakins Exhibition, 1958, no. 6
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Thomas Eakins: A Retrospective Exhibition, 1961-1962, no. 49, illustrated (This exhibition also traveled to Chicago, Illinois, Art Institute of Chicago; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
New York, American Federation of Arts Gallery, The Role of the Macbeth Gallery, no. 9
New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Art Gallery, American Paintings from Alumni Collections, 1968, no. 101, illustrated
Bloomington, Indiana, Indiana University Art Museum, The American Scene 1820-1900: An Exhibition of Landscape and Outdoor Genre Held in Honor of the Sesquicentennial of Indiana University, 1970, pl. 63
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Thomas Eakins, September 22-November 21, 1970, no. 49
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Thomas Eakins, October 4, 2001-January 6, 2002, p. 201, illustrated (This exhibition also traveled to Paris, France, Musée d'Orsay; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
32¼ x 45 in. (82 x 114.3 cm.)
L. Goodrich, Thomas Eakins: His Life and Work, New York, 1933, no. 224, pl. 34, p. 179
S. Knox, New York Times, "$210,000 Paid for an Eakins Sets a Record for U.S. Artists", December 12, 1970, p. 20
D. Ellesin, Antiques, Vol. C, "Antiques at Auction: Cowboys in the Badlands by Thomas Eakins, $210,000 World Auction Record for an American Artist", November 1971, p. 102, illustrated
G. Hendricks, The Life and Work of Thomas Eakins, New York, 1974, pl. 33, pp. 175-179
T. Siegl, The Thomas Eakins Collection, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1977, pp. 116-120
W.I. Homer, Arts Magazine, "Thomas Eakins and the Avondale Experience", February 1980, no. 4, pp. 150-153, illustrated
N.K. Anderson, Eakins at Avondale, "Cowboys in the Badlands and the Role of Avondale", pp. 21-23, 35, illustrated
L. Goodrich, Thomas Eakins, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982, vol. II, pp. 22-23, 25, 52, 126, 167, 284, 287, illustrated
W.I. Homer, Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art, New York, 1992, pp. 202, 204, illustrated
J. Wilmerding, Thomas Eakins and the Heart of American Life, London, England, 1993, p. 28
K.A. Foster, Thomas Eakins Rediscovered, New Haven, Connecticut, 1997, pp. 77, 177, 192-197, 230, 278, 411, illustrated
John Hemenway Duncan, New York, early 1890s.
Stephen C. Clark, New York, 1920s.
Macbeth Gallery, New York.
Mr. Francis P. Garvan, Wheatley Hills, New York.
Sale: Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 10 December 1970, lot 51.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.