In this gelatin silver print taken in 1880 by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), a young African American girl poses nude on a divan. She props her head up on her elbow, a pose that both enables her to gaze directly at the viewer and exposes her tiny, prepubescent body, which occupies so little space on the couch. Her pose also creates a curve that complements the shape of the couch—where it dips, her buttocks pops. Her stare is direct but also glazed, as if indicating that holding this pose, which puts her folded right arm at a very odd angle and foreshortens her neck, is producing strain and discomfort. The contrast of her unblemished skin and the busy pattern of the couch upholstery heightens the intensity of her nakedness.
Even to my modern eyes, which are less sensitive to nudity than a 19th-century spectators would have been, this photograph is disturbing. It is, for instance, not the kind of image I want to have open on my computer when other people can see my screen. Even in the privacy of my own office, I feel discomfited when looking at the image, as though I am doing something illicit—specifically, looking at child pornography. Upon reflection, I think I feel this way for many reasons: because the girl is so young; because she looks so vulnerable; because she is black; because I am white; because I know that Thomas Eakins, the artist who staged and took the photograph, was much older, male and white.
We know Eakins to have been an iconoclast with positions on sexuality that got him into hot water. Eakins had an illustrious academic pedigree, training in Paris under Jean-Léon Gérôme and serving of the director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts when he returned to the States, but he was fired in 1886 after he allowed coed attendance to nude modeling classes. Regardless of Eakins’s own sexual orientation, which has been put under the magnifying glass by biographers like William S. McFeeley, his many paintings and photographs of naked young men in the studio or loitering on rocks and leaping into swimming holes have been read in the context of homosexuality in recent shows like the controversial Hide/Seek. Despite, or perhaps because of his unorthodox deviations from the norms of American academic painting, Eakins was really the first 19th century American painter to get hagiographic treatment in the 20th-century, with Whitney curator Lloyd Goodrich publishing a two-volume work on Eakins in 1933 (a project that was initially bankrolled by Goodrich’s friend and Eakins enthusiast Reginald Marsh).
Eakins was also one of the first American artists to integrate photography into his repertoire. By the 1880s, Eakins had begun working with a wooden view camera using the platinum print process to create photographs like African-American Girl Nude Reclining on a Couch. Using his students at the Pennsylvania Academy as models, Eakins composed a compendium of figure studies, taken of subjects both in costume and in the nude. Just as Louis Agassiz commissioned his slave daguerreotypes in the service of science, Eakins photographed nude youths in his academy studio in the name of art.
Nude African-American Girl on a Couch was thus part of a larger project to capture and study the human body, but as we have discussed in relation to Aleta Ringlero’s study of photographs of Native American women, scientifically motivated 19th-century photographs had crossover potential as pornographic pleasure objects. Ringlero argues that in the photographs of Will Soule and others, naked Native American subjects exhibit a vocabulary of poses that are inspired by the tradition of the nude in Western art, which were presumably designed and imposed by the photographer. The manner in which the nude African American girl in Eakin’s photograph is splayed before the viewer is likewise reminiscent of the classic Odalisque, only unlike Titian’s Venus or Manet’s Olympia Eakins’s girl is exposed to the maximum degree. The official objective of Eakin’s nude figure studies may have been to see the human body in action in a wide vocabulary of poses, but his choices of which bodies and which poses is significant. Could he have been unaware of the sexualizing operation he was performing on his young African American subject by having her act out the pose associated with the goddess of love? The effect (intended or not) of choosing this pose is a photograph whose illicit erotic potential is thinly veiled by its academic objectives, making it another exhibit in 19th century photography’s character as a double agent serving both science and lust.