Baby at Play is the final work in a series of intimate portraits of family and friends created by Eakins between 1870 and 1876. The painting depicts the artist's two–and–a–half–year–old niece, Ella Crowell. Dressed in an intricately embroidered white frock, her legs clad in red–and–white striped stockings, the child is soberly absorbed at play.
According to one recent interpretation, Eakins was depicting Ella's initial foray into the adult world of education and learning. Having temporarily cast aside her more infantile toys in favor of alphabet blocks—the tools of language—the child now seems ready to enter the next critical stage in her intellectual development.
The monumentality of her painted form may seem surprising, considering the diminutive stature of Eakins' model. Her life–sized figure is arranged in a stable pyramidal block at the composition's center and the deft handling of light and shadow further emphasizes spatial volume. Eakins' choice of a lowered vantage point encourages the spectator to adopt a child's point of view. His penetrating psychological insight elevates this picture from a sentimental genre scene to a highly serious portrayal of an earnest, intelligent child.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I, pages 162-167, which is available as a free PDF at https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/american-paintings-19th-century-part-1.pdf
lower right on brick pavement: Eakins / 76
Mrs. William J. Crowell, the artist's sister, Avondale, Pennsylvania; her son, James W. Crowell [1888-1954], Claremont, California. (Babock Galleries, New York); sold May 1944 to (M. Knoedler & Co., New York); sold April 1946 to Charles G. Lang [1890-1956], Baltimore; consigned 1950 to (M. Knoedler & Co., New York); sold May 1954 to John Hay Whitney [1904-1982], Manhasset, New York;  deeded 1982 to the John Hay Whitney Charitable Trust, New York; gift 1982 to NGA.
- American Painting, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor, 1935, no. 100, repro.
- Thomas Eakins 1844-1916: A Retrospective Exhibition of His Paintings, The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1936-1937, no. 1, as Child Playing.
- Exhibition of Paintings by Thomas Eakins, Kleemann Galleries, New York, 1939, no. 17.
- A Loan Exhibition of the Works of Thomas Eakins 1844-1944 Commemorating the Centennial of His Birth, M. Knoedler and Co., New York, June-July 1944, no. 12.
- A Loan Exhibition of the Works of Thomas Eakins 1844-1944 Commemorating the Centennial of His Birth, Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts, Delaware, October 1944, no. 12, repro.
- 19th and 20th Century European and American Art, Des Moines Art Center, Iowa, June-July 1948, no. 34.
- Romantic America, Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Ohio, October-November 1948, no. 11, as Child with the Blocks.
- Homer, Eakins, Ryder, Inness and Their French Contemporaries: A Loan Exhibition of Famous Paintings from Foremost American Museums and Collectors, Fort Worth Art Association, Texas, 1949, no. 21, repro.
- Pictures Collected by Yale Alumni, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 1956, no. 67.
- The John Hay Whitney Collection, Tate Gallery, London, 1960-1961, no. 26.
- Thomas Eakins: A Retrospective Exhibition, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; The Art Institute of Chicago; Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1961-1962, no. 22.
- Thomas Eakins Retrospective Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1970, no. 25, repro.
- Thomas Eakins: Artist of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1982, no. 7.
- The John Hay Whitney Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1983, no. 69, repro.
- A Proud Heritage: Two Centuries of American Art [inaugural exhibition], Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, 1987, not in cat.
- Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and the Heart of American Life, National Portrait Gallery, London, 1993-1994, no. 14, repro.
- Gifts to the Nation from Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998-1999, no cat.
- Thomas Eakins: American Realist, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Musée d'Orsay, Paris; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001-2002, pl. 18.
- Young America: Childhood in 19th-Century Art and Culture, Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; Portland (Maine) Museum of Art, 2006-2007, not in catalogue (shown only in Washington and Portland)
The support is a twill fabric that is evenly coated with a moderately thick white ground. It has been lined, but the original tacking edges are preserved, and it is mounted on what appears to be the original five-member (including a vertical crossbar), mortise-and-half-miter stretcher. The paint layers range from very thin to very thick, applied by brush and, in places, palette knife. Orange-red marks on the vertical edges presumably had to do with the placement of the original design or transfer from a sketch. The painting is generally in very good condition, although the paint is somewhat abraded overall. X-radiography reveals vertical bands of damage at the top of the painting that may be original to it and were perhaps repainted by the artist. In 1932, 1957, and 1985 discolored varnish was removed and the painting was restored.
 On the reverse, a paper label, written in ink and graphite (probably by Charles Bregler), reads: "canvas rebacked, & varnished with Mastic Jan. 1932." Similar labels are affixed to the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Louis Husson [1952.2.1 and 1952.2.2].
- Goodrich, Lloyd. "Thomas Eakins, Realist." Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin 25 (March 1930): 18, no. 17, as Baby at Play on the Floor.
- Goodrich, Lloyd. Thomas Eakins: His Life and Work. New York, 1933: 169.
- Barker, Virgil. "Imagination in Thomas Eakins." Parnassus 11 (November 1939): repro. 10.
- Ormsbee, Thomas Hamilton. "American Realist Painter." American Collector 13 (July 1944): repro. 6.
- McHenry, Margaret. Thomas Eakins, Who Painted. Privately printed for the author, Oreland, Pennsylvania, 1946: 100.
- Porter, Fairfield. Thomas Eakins. New York, 1959: repro. 24.
- The John Hay Whitney Collection. Exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London, 1961: no. 26.
- Schendler, Sylvan. Eakins. Boston, 1967: 70, repro. 71.
- Moynihan, Rodrigo. "The Odd American." Art News 69 (January 1971): 51-52, repro. 50.
- Hendricks, Gordon. The Life and Work of Thomas Eakins. New York, 1974: 111, pl. 20.
- Goodrich, Lloyd. Thomas Eakins. 2 vols. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982: 1:79, color repro. 78.
- Sewell, Darrel. Thomas Eakins: Artist of Philadelphia. Exh. cat. Philadelphia Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Philadelphia, 1982: 10, repro. 11.
- Rewald, John. The John Hay Whitney Collection. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1983: no. 69.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 553, no. 841, color repro.
- Prown, Jules David. "Thomas Eakins' Baby at Play." Studies in the History of Art 18 (1985): 121-127, repro. 125.
- Parry, Ellwood C., III. "Some Distant Relatives and American Cousins of Thomas Eakins's Children at Play." The American Art Journal 18 (1986): 21-41, repro. 21.
- Fried, Michael. Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane. Chicago, 1987: 22, 77, repro. 26.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 130, no. 42, color repro.
- Wilmerding, John. "America's Young Masters: Raphelle, Rembrandt, and Rubens." In Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr. Raphaelle Peale Still Lifes. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Washington, D.C., 1988: 89-90, repro.
- Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 292, color repro.
- Wilmerding, John. American Views: Essays on America Art. Princeton, 1991: 338 n. 50.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 165, repro.
- Homer, William Innes. Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art. New York, 1992: 91, 93, color repro. 92.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 242, repro.
- Wilmerding, John, et al. Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and the Heart of American Life. Exh. cat. National Portrait Gallery, London, 1993: 25, 64, note 1, 82-83, repros. 24 (detail), 82.
- Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 162-167, color repro.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 312, no. 252, color repro.