National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of Baby at Play Thomas Eakins (artist)
American, 1844 - 1916
Baby at Play, 1876
oil on canvas
overall: 81.9 x 122.8 cm (32 1/4 x 48 3/8 in.) framed: 106.7 x 147.3 cm (42 x 58 in.)
John Hay Whitney Collection
1982.76.5
On View
From the Tour: Homer and Eakins: American Painters in the Late 1800s
Object 3 of 8

In 1876, Eakins joined the faculty of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Painted the same year, Baby at Play depicts Ella Crowell, the artist’s two-and-one-half-year-old niece, in the side yard of his own Philadelphia home. Ella is totally absorbed with alphabet blocks, having cast aside her ball, doll, and toy horse and cart.

In accord with late nineteenth-century attitudes about education, she has progressed from infantile pursuits to more advanced stages of development. By stacking up the blocks, the child practices language and motor skills. Eakins communicates his niece’s serious concentration by arranging her into a solid, pyramidal mass that is nearly life-size and aligned geometrically with the toys, blocks, and paved walk. The brown bricks show Eakins’ expertise in mechanical drafting and, with the dark shrubbery, set off Ella’s sunlit figure.

Eakins’ skill in modeling with light and shadow also marks three small oil studies in the National Gallery of Art. These quick life sketches of African-American subjects are the same size as their final pictures. Two relate to Negro Boy Dancing of 1878, a watercolor now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. For an oil painting of 1908 now in The Brooklyn Museum, Eakins made The Chaperone, in which an old servant knits while a young girl poses nude for a sculptor.

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