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Eakins' The ChaperoneThomas Eakins (1844-1916), The Chaperone, c. 1908, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Gift of John Wilmerding, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art

In 1877 Thomas Eakins painted a canvas showing the early Philadelphia ship carver and sculptor William Rush (1756–1853), working from a nude female model in sculpting a life-size allegorical figure. The only other figure present in the painting is an elderly woman knitting. Although there is no evidence the sculptor had worked from a nude model, Eakins believed study from the nude was essential and he stressed this in his teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The 1877 painting may have been intended to suggest that working from the nude was not unprecedented in Philadelphia. The inclusion of the elderly woman chaperone legitimized the activity of posing nude, making it clear that this model was a virtuous young woman from a good family.

Even so, for many Philadelphians of Eakins’ time the idea of such a person posing nude would still have carried an unmistakable implication of scandal. In 1886 Eakins was forced to resign his position at the Pennsylvania Academy, in part because his unrelenting emphasis on working from the nude had become a controversial topic in staid Philadelphia. Rumors circulated that Eakins had indulged in improper, even immoral behavior. The dismissal affected him deeply and he increasingly withdrew from Philadelphia art circles to pursue his art independently. By the early 1900s he was all but forgotten.

In 1908 Eakins returned to the subject of William Rush in several paintings. The most complete version, for which The Chaperone is a study, retains the principal elements from the 1877 oil, but with significant changes. The figure of Rush is presented as an artisan or a workman and the chaperone is no longer a finely dressed, elderly white woman in an elegant chair, but  rather a black woman wearing a bandanna. Eakins presumably made this oil sketch from life, but we do not know the sitter's identity. Eakins gave her a quiet dignity that differs markedly from the less sympathetic images of African Americans found in all too many works by his contemporaries.

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