Among the many controversial aspects of Thomas Eakins’s career, none is more romanticized than his legendary status as the uncompromising art teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy who lost his job because he refused to modify his instructional practices. As noted Eakins scholar Elizabeth Johns explains, the common presumption—that a series of discrete and identifiable incidents involving the use of nude models in the classroom led to his dismissal—is an oversimplification of a complex situation. Drawing on Eakins’s correspondence and on the archival records of the Academy, Johns locates the substance of the artist’s disputes with the Academy administration in a matrix of pedagogical and curricular views emergent from Eakins’s own experience as an art student.

Eakins designed a rigorous curriculum in which students could still have maximum autonomy to develop on their own. His advocacy of “pure art education,” including instruction from the nude figure for all art students, regardless of their personal interests, was deemed impractical in a school that sought to accommodate a diverse population with varying professional aspirations. In addition, his manifest reluctance to engage in direct instruction was understood not as respect for student autonomy (a condition he valued highly in his own education) but rather as indifference and neglect.