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Let’s talk about Thomas Eakins, Philly’s revered sexual predator | Opinion

Why is artist Thomas Eakins so beloved in Philadelphia when we know he has a history of sexual abuse?

Philadelphia artist Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter stands next to the Thomas Eakins historical marker in front of Eakins' Spring Garden neighborhood house on Monday, October 18, 2021.
Philadelphia artist Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter stands next to the Thomas Eakins historical marker in front of Eakins' Spring Garden neighborhood house on Monday, October 18, 2021.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

It’s time for a reckoning on behalf of Black people in Philadelphia.

You might say we’ve already done that — the statue and mural of Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia’s notoriously brutal former mayor and police commissioner, came down in June 2020. In April 2021, the Penn Museum announced it would repatriate the skulls of Black Philadelphians and Cuban slaves from its Morton Collection, which was amassed unethically by a white supremacist for whom the collection was named. And in May, it was discovered that the remains of at least one person who was killed during the 1985 MOVE bombing had been kept for 30 years in storage at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton.

What a time to be Black in Philadelphia.

And yet, our city still has so far to go to undo the centuries of systemic racism that has harmed people of color, especially Black women and girls.

I learned of each of the events above while working in the Mural Arts building at 17th and Mount Vernon Streets, which was originally the home and studio of Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins. As I considered how Philadelphia perpetuated atrocities against people who look like me, I would occasionally peer out my window and look at the Eakins historical marker, which reads:

“One of the finest realist painters of his time. A master of the art of the human figure. His work included portraits and scenes of sporting and medical events such as ‘The Gross Clinic.’ A lifelong Philadelphian, he had his home and studio here, on Mt. Vernon Street.”

Eakins is everywhere in Philadelphia. My place of work is often called “The Eakins House,” and his name is displayed in the email signatures of most of my colleagues. There’s Eakins Oval near the Art Museum. His name is also engraved on the sidewalk outside of the Department of Human Services, which I stepped on countless times when I was in foster care as a child, like so many other vulnerable Philadelphians.

As I stared out the window at Eakins’ historical marker, pondering all the ways Philadelphia had failed Black people, I needed to know that this white guy was different.

An unnamed Black girl

As I scoured the internet for answers, a cropped digitized albumen print of a young Black girl’s face caught my eye, taken by Eakins. The image appeared in a 2019 New Yorker article by MacArthur fellow Saidiya Hartman titled “An Unnamed Girl, A Speculative History: What a photograph reveals about young Black women at the turn of the century.” Hartman describes the girl in Eakins’ photo as “forced to assume the pose of courtesan and concubine” and says her image serves as “a placeholder for all the possibilities and the dangers awaiting young black women at the turn of the twentieth century.”

Imagine my surprise when I learned that the uncropped images of this young girl — completely nude and posed seductively — were accessible to anyone with internet access on the website for the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). The photos reeked of pedophilia, sexual violence, and white supremacy. It made my heart sink to think about who had seen these photos.

More digging revealed that this was not the only time Eakins preyed upon the most vulnerable. In addition to Black girls, it has been reported that Eakins molested his niece and was accused of engaging in incest with one of his sisters and inappropriately exposing himself to another. He also was known to undress in front of his students.

So why is Eakins still revered in Philadelphia?

Justice for her

I sat with this question for weeks, until I figured out what I could do to bring justice to at least one of Eakins’ victims — the unnamed Black girl in the photographs.

As an artist and a victim of childhood sexual abuse, I saw myself reflected in the photo. When I looked in the little girl’s eyes, I saw many other women and girls whose stories were ignored or never told. Although I wanted justice, the reality of my own abuse at 11, which I only began to acknowledge two years ago at the age of 37, kept me stagnant.

I soon realized that to bring justice to the young Black child in the photo, I needed to become a part of the art. I wanted to use my art and my body to protect the vulnerable girl staring back at me, trapped in a photo taken in 1882 by Philadelphia’s famous and revered pedophile, Thomas Eakins.

In the process of making this art come to life, I had many discussions with PAFA, who own the Eakins photos. I learned that despite the high traffic to photographs of nude children on its site, PAFA had never before grappled with its policy of granting access to such works. As a result of my conversations — and internal discussions among PAFA leadership — these photos were removed in August.

PAFA has also pledged to release a public statement detailing the harm it has helped to perpetuate, and pledged to engage in an ongoing conversation around repair by hosting a lecture with me for its students, along with various scholarship and continued programming.

But more needs to be done. Eakins’ imprint on Philadelphia goes far beyond PAFA.

The City of Philadelphia should remove Eakins’ name from all of the city’s landmarks. It should host open discussions in collaboration with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, PAFA, the University of Pennsylvania, and Mural Arts to speak out about the ways in which Black children’s bodies have been exploited in the name of arts and science. We also need a new historical marker that speaks to the harms perpetuated by Eakins, officially declaring the end of an era of unacknowledged abuses.

Lastly, the pornographic photos of the unnamed Black girl should be repatriated to a local African American special collection, perhaps the Charles L. Blockson African American Collection at Temple University, which houses more than 500,000 items relating to the global Black experience dating back to 1581.

Who is protecting us?

Philadelphia’s reckoning with Thomas Eakins won’t be the end of the fight to undo systemic racism that has kept down Black people for centuries. It is yet another example of how the victimized (Black women like me) are again forced to do the labor to right wrongs we didn’t create, with no guarantee of justice.

We saw this during the #MeToo movement. A Black woman named Tarana Burke created the campaign to raise awareness of sexual violence perpetrated against Black women and girls, yet the faces of white actresses and celebrities are what most people remember. We continue to see this during the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which is primarily led by Black women. We say the names of Black men, but we know Black women are being killed too.

Black women are protecting everybody. But who’s protecting us? Deleting the photos of the unnamed and naked Black girl from a website is a start. But we need more than erasure. We need the story of our Black bodies, and so many others, to be told. It’s time for a reckoning.

Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter, also known as Isis Tha Saviour, is an award-winning Philadelphia-based artist who creates socially conscious music, film, and visual art through an autobiographical lens. Her Eakins photos are currently on view at Martos Gallery in Manhattan.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this piece misidentified the number of MOVE victims found at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton. The error has been corrected.