We escaped the heat yesterday by a visit to the Metropolitan Museum and were particularly struck by an exhibition of Thomas Eakins’ work and by some Gauguin canvases. Both represented possible responses to the basic problem of the late 19th century, the death of God. Eakins’ response was a sort of heroic materialism, the artist as workman, as scientific observer, as witness and advocate of the triumph of human discipline, observation and skill over brute natural necessity. His masterpiece The Gross Clinic summed up his interests and ideals.
Gauguin in contrast lacked both the engineer’s interest in the world and the ability to tolerate the world engineers were creating around him. His fascination with color and pattern led his art into unreal fantasias intended to express private spiritual apprehensions that in the event went nowhere.
Although Gauguin’s a wonderful artist I prefer Eakins, mostly because I prefer sanity and good behavior. If a man abandons his family, moves to Tahiti and dies a drug addict something’s gone wrong with his grasp of things. I prefer a man who sticks to realities and gives them his all. Still, when you stick to what you grasp you can leave things out. Eakins’ portraits suggest the problem. The men and women he painted—forceful, capable and alone—seem puzzled by an ultimate lack of purpose in the world they inhabit. What good is their intelligence, force and skill in the end if all is mechanism?
Gauguin failed because the artist cannot as artist solve religious problems. Both he and Eakins show, however, that more than anyone artists can make us see just what those problems are.