More Than Meets the Eye

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Studies have shown that medical students who spend time looking at art develop more acute observation skills, a key advantage in their careers. I cannot claim that looking at works of art has improved my scientific acumen, but I can certainly say that spending time with a work of art sets off my curator’s stream of consciousness. My brain builds associations based on personal experience and a sort of mental Rolodex of images forges connections unique to my idiosyncratic way of thinking.

All of which leads me to a somewhat unlikely pairing of two great paintings in our collection: Thomas Eakins’s Swimming (1885) and Frederic Remington’s A Dash for the Timber (1889).

1990-19-1_s.jpg1961-381_s.jpgThomas Eakins, Swimming, 1885 and Frederic Remington, A Dash for the Timber, 1889

More than just a chronological convergence or the fact that one work depicts human nudes and the other equine nudes, I’d argue a sort of commonality of influence in these two paintings in the application of photography to the process of depicting bodies—horses or otherwise. The 1880s saw the rise in popularity of the photographic motion studies of the eccentric Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904), whose landmark scientific experiments at the University of Pennsylvania captured aspects of sequential movements theretofore invisible to the naked eye but recorded by the lenses.

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Eadweard Muybridge, Annie G. with Jockey, ca. 1887

Eakins spent time in 1884 at Muybridge’s laboratory-studio, only to devise his own photographic techniques for recording motion. We know that he took several photographs in the process of preparing to paint Swimming, though the final outcome is an artistic statement all his own. Even though he has depicted several individuals, I can’t help but see it as reminiscent of photographic studies of one nude in motion.

Paintings of horses were never the same after Muybridge’s studies. Suddenly, rather than legs splayed out horizontally to indicate a horse at full gallop, Remington and others (including Eakins) showed a variety of seemingly implausible horsey poses inspired by what the human eye could not possibly perceive, but the camera could. When I look at A Dash for the Timber, I see the effects of Muybridge and his photographic contemporaries written all over it. This is partially because I had the occasion to look at both paintings closely with a photographic historian friend, and partially because I have devoted time in the past to understanding the juncture of art and science in Muybridge’s day and what was considered acceptable behavior in the laboratory but not the artist’s classroom.

Making connections between paintings is not a science. It’s okay to form your own associations. If our paintings make sense to you because of a sunset you once observed or because of a story about your family, I say go for it. And, for all you aspiring medical professionals out there, come to the Amon Carter and stay a while. It will only help your career!

Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator