Wyeth Lecture in American Art: Minstrelsy "Uncorked": Thomas Eakins' Empathetic Realism



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Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art
The Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, located in the East Building at the National Gallery of Art, is a research institute that fosters study of the production, use, and cultural meaning of art, artifacts, architecture, and urbanism, from prehistoric times to the present. Founded in 1979, the Center encourages a variety of approaches by historians, critics, and theorists of art, as well as by scholars in related disciplines of the humanities and social sciences.

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Biography of Thomas Eakins
Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins was born in 1844 in Philadelphia, the first-born and only male of the four children of Benjamin Eakins and Caroline Cowperthwait. His father was a calligrapher and writing master, who supported his family in comfortable circumstances by his profession and through prudent investments. Eakins was raised in the family home at 1729 Mount Vernon Street and would live there for the rest of his life (it still stands).

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Negro Boy Dancing, 1878
This watercolor shows three male figures of different generations playing and responding to music. A framed copy of the famous photograph of Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad suggests the figures' familial relationships and emphasizes their emancipation. This watercolor gained Eakins his first award—a silver medal—at the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association exhibition in Boston in 1878. Source: Thomas Eakins: Negro Boy Dancing (25.97.1) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Recorded on November 4, 2009, this podcast presents the fourth Wyeth Lecture in American Art, a biennial event hosted by the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts and supported by the Wyeth Foundation for American Art. Richard J. Powell focuses on Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) as uniquely empathetic among the many 19th-century artists who depicted African American performance and entertainment. Eakins' Negro Boy Dancing (1887; Metropolitan Museum of Art) shows a young banjo player, an elderly teacher, and an adolescent dancer, evoking the American rage for the form of musical theater known as minstrelsy. Eakins' watercolor, along with two oil-on-board studies at the National Gallery of Art, challenged the tendency of minstrelsy to employ racial ridicule and physical exaggeration. Instead, Powell argues, Eakins adhered to a painterly realism as well as his own brand of empathy and ethics.

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