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Collection Spotlight

Thomas Eakins, Professor Henry A. Rowland

Thomas Eakins
Professor Henry A. Rowland, 1897
oil on canvas
gift of Stephen C. Clark, Esq.

In 1897, the American realist painter Thomas Eakins painted a contemplative and laudatory portrait of Henry A. Rowland, the founding chairman of the physics department at Johns Hopkins University. Seated in three-quarter profile, Professor Rowland looks down, caught in a moment of great reflection. He holds a diffraction grating of the spectrum, a creation of his machine located in the background.

Light plays an important role in Eakins’ portraits, here selectively drawing the viewer’s attention to a hierarchy that progressively moves backwards within the composition. Beginning with Rowland’s dramatically lit head, which Eakins described in a letter to Rowland as the “most prominent thing in the picture,” followed by the scientist’s hands and gradually moving backward to the subtly lit machine, the light links head, hand, and invention, signaling Eakins’ reverence for the scientist, the intelligence of the modern man. As a realist artist, Eakins was known to study anatomy and emphasized the importance of the accurate anatomical rendering of the human figure to his students. The veins in Dr. Rowland’s forehead and sculptural quality of his hands add to the accurate depiction of the seated figure. Further, Eakins has painted Rowland’s clothing in a rumpled and realist fashion, choosing not to idealize this figure, but emphasize that he was a man of the mind, not concerned with worldly fashions. Finally, to further identify the figure with his professional accomplishments, Eakins constructed a custom frame surrounded with carved scientific symbols and notations provided by Rowland, literally framing him with the symbols of his profession.

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