365 Days of Art: November 1 – Eakins Writes a Catty Letter

The Biglin Brothers Racing, Thomas Eakins, 1872

The Biglin Brothers Racing, Thomas Eakins, 1872

November 1, 1867

Thomas Eakins writes a letter to his sister Fanny, about his annoyance at being forced to entertain a difficult artist and his family, who are new to Paris.

The early part of the letter sets the stage for how Eakins comes to be involved in this situation: their mutual friend, who is supposed to have taken on these duties, is out of town, so Eakins agrees to do them both this favor. He tries to meet the artist, F. de Berg Richards, at the train station, but Richards gives incorrect information and Eakins can’t find him. Eakins tries again the following day and finds the man so “helpless”, that Eakins feels he must be the one to find the family a better hotel and make the moving arrangements. He also gets roped into escorting Richards on various errands.

Eakins’ personality cracks me up–a little curmudgeonly, a little whiny, with all the accurate observations of a first-class gossip.

Dear Fanny,

…He [Richards] is about a head taller than me & as helpless as a child. He is a very good hearted sort of a man a most miserable painter & yet with such an exquisite taste that he sees faults in the color of & drawing of the best pictures in the world, and he also once wrote a book. His wife is a foolish good natured large baby doll face woman & worships her husband & dotes on music of which she brought with her about 5 pecks & her name is Susie. She said she would die if it was not for music & also the same if she did not get a piano right off which she did the next day but one.

According to a promise I went to see them last week and & spend the evening & Mr. Richards gave me a catalogue of the exhibition to read in which he had ticked off the pictures that he had liked and afterwards Mrs. Richards make the piano go & sang. It was the only time in my life that I suffered from noise. I like to hear the fire crackers & guns go off and although I may not be fond of hearing a man sharpen a saw or file a tooth or a wet finger drawn over glass, still I do not suffer, but of that music.

She played the [illegible] Redviva which was composed & dedicated to her & her playing, & some waltzes dedicated to her husband & others of which I did not see or hear the dedication but may have been dedicated to his pictures. I like to hear beginners feeling so daintily and timidly for the keys they want to strike but her practice has given her a confidence & horse power of execution that is marvellous. She does not modulate herself but keeps hitting as hard & as fast as she can from beginning to end. Her husband asking her to sing for us she said she couldn’t & that he knew she had hardly sing since leaving home that etc etc etc. but after she had made all the excuses she thought of & nobody saying any more or insisting she commenced of her own accord. Her singing was more wonderful than her playing & much louder. The first song was in English but I did not catch any words. The second was an Italian song which she said was to an infant sleeping. I should hope dead. There was the piano accompaniment which could be heard when she took breath, otherwise the police would have forced the door in spite of the door keepers protestations. As it is stupid to not say anything at the end of a piece unless you have tears in your eyes I had some trouble to think out something appropriate but found it at last and told her that her voice would fill a large opera house & after turned to Mr. Richards & assured him that I had heard many an opera.”