Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy - Professor Henry A. Rowland

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Image of Professor Henry A. Rowland

Thomas Eakins , (Jul 25, 1844–Jun 25, 1916)
Frame by Thomas Eakins

Professor Henry A. Rowland

80 1/4 in. x 54 in. (203.84 cm x 137.16 cm)

Medium and Support: Oil on canvas
Credit Line: Gift of Stephen C. Clark, Esq.
Accession Number: 1931.5


In 1897, the American realist painter Thomas Eakins painted a contemplative and laudatory portrait of Henry A. Rowland, the founding chairman of the physics department at Johns Hopkins University. Seated in three-quarter profile, Professor Rowland looks down, caught in a moment of great reflection. He holds a diffraction grating of the spectrum, a creation of his machine located in the background.

Light plays an important role in Eakins’ portraits, here selectively drawing the viewer’s attention to a hierarchy that progressively moves backwards within the composition. Beginning with Rowland’s dramatically lit head, which Eakins described in a letter to Rowland as the “most prominent thing in the picture,” followed by the scientist’s hands and gradually moving backward to the subtly lit machine, the light links head, hand, and invention, signaling Eakins’ reverence for the scientist, the intelligence of the modern man. As a realist artist, Eakins was known to study anatomy and emphasized the importance of the accurate anatomical rendering of the human figure to his students. The veins in Dr. Rowland’s forehead and sculptural quality of his hands add to the accurate depiction of the seated figure. Further, Eakins has painted Rowland’s clothing in a rumpled and realist fashion, choosing not to idealize this figure, but emphasize that he was a man of the mind, not concerned with worldly fashions. Finally, to further identify the figure with his professional accomplishments, Eakins constructed a custom frame surrounded with carved scientific symbols and notations provided by Rowland, literally framing him with the symbols of his profession.

Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years - Catalogue Entry

In late July 1897, Thomas Eakins traveled to the summer resort of Seal Harbor, Maine, to paint the portrait of Henry A. Rowland (1848-1901). Rowland, who had attended Phillips Academy for a short time in his youth, was professor of physics at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a leading member of the American scientific community. We do not know whether the two men were prior acquaintances.1 Certainly, a close friendship developed during Eakins's three-week stay: between sittings Eakins taught Rowland to ride a bicycle, Rowland took Eakins sailing, and the two men made a box kite for Rowland's children. During this time Eakins did a preliminary compositional oil sketch (also in the collection of the Addison Gallery), and perspectival drawings, and completed most of the lifesize figure of Rowland on the canvas.2

Four years Eakins's junior, Henry Rowland was then at the summit of his career. Primarily an experimentalist, he was best known for developing a ruling engine that revolutionized the science of spectroscopy by facilitating the manufacture of diffraction gratings with unprecedented precision, and for his compilation of a table of solar spectra that, in extended form, is still in use today.3 Rowland also explored the mysteries of electricity, devising an experiment to prove the magnetic equivalence of electric currents and another to establish a standard unit of electrical resistance. An eloquent spokesman for pure science, Rowland decried the tendency of Americans to equate progress with the winning of commercial gain through applied science and invention, at the expense of research into first principles. As founding chairman of the physics department at The Johns Hopkins University, Rowland elevated that department to a place among the best in the world.4

Eakins portrayed Rowland seated, in three-quarters profile, looking off to the right in deep thought. The scientist's right hand rests on his thigh; in his left he holds a diffraction grating of the spectrum. The spectrum provides both an enlivening touch of color at the center of the composition and a visual link into the background, where Rowland's longtime technician, Theodore Schneider, stands working on the ruling machine. Eakins also constructed an elaborate gilded chestnut frame for the canvas in to which he carved scientific symbols and notations (provided by Rowland) that identify the sitter with his professional achievements.

The entire portrait project seems to have been of Eakins's own choosing, for there is no record that he had received any official commission, though he did express the hope that Johns Hopkins might purchase the portrait.5 Yet Eakins's interest in Rowland is not difficult to explain: Rowland was typical of the accomplished men and women that Eakins liked to seek out as portrait subjects. Nor is it surprising that he chose to portray a scientist renowned for his exploration of the structure of light. Just as in Elizabeth at the Piano, Eakins manipulated the fall of light not only to model the sitter's body into three dimensions but also to signal the inner light of intellectual acuity. According to Bryan Wolf, the canvas and frame together define Rowland "as a thinker whose contemplative efforts are tethered to the real world." In keeping with Rowland's own pedagogical goals as a research scientist, Eakins's purpose in this portrait was "to legitimate thinking as an element essential to wordly endeavour."6

Elizabeth Milroy and Troy Stephens, Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 364-65

1. Rowland entered Andover in the spring of 1865 and stayed about a year; Charles Sawyer to Robert McIntyre, 7 April 1931, Addison Gallery Archives. For biographies of Rowland, see Dr. Thomas C. Mendenhall, "Henry A. Rowland. A Commemorative Address (Delivered before an assembly of friends, Baltimore, 26 October 1901)," in The Physical Papers of Henry Augustus Rowland (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1902), pp. 1-17; and A. D. Moore, "Henry A. Rowland," in Scientific American 246 (February 1982), pp. 155-56. Although Eakins may not have known Rowland personally before embarking on the portrait, he was surely familiar with Rowland's reputation and many achievements. Rowland had close ties to Philadelphia's scientific community; in 1884 he was president of the Electrical Congress sponsored by the Franklin Institute. He also had ties to the city's artistic community, as an accomplished photographer and prizewinning exhibitor at the annual exhibitions of the Philadelphia Photographic Society.

2. Eakins described his stay in Seal Harbor and work on the portrait in a series of letters to his wife, Susan Macdowell Eakins. Among the many intriguing insights into Eakins's personality and his working method found in these letters is his comment in a letter of 8 August 1897, that the reclusive Winslow Homer lived nearby: "I would be glad to meet him & he might like to meet me but I should not like to go hunt him up" (Charles Bregler's Thomas Eakins Collection, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia). After his return to Philadelphia, Eakins kept in touch with Rowland until the portrait was completed in December 1897. Copies of the Eakins-Rowland correspondence are in the Addison Gallery Archives.

3. See John D. Miller, "Rowland's Physics," Physics Today (July 1976), pp. 33-34; A. D. Moore, pp. 150-59; Charlotte Emma Moore, The Solar Spectrum…An Extension of Rowland's Preliminary Table of Solar Spectrum Wavelengths (Washington, D.C.: E. O. Hulburt Center for Space Research, Naval Research Laboratory, 1983).

4. "Those who wish to pursue pure science in our own country must be prepared to face public opinion in a manner which requires much moral courage," Rowland announced in an 1883 address, provocatively titled "A Plea for Pure Science." The text is published in The Physical Papers of Henry Augustus Rowland, p. 595.

5. Thomas Eakins to Susan Eakins, 8 August 1897, Charles Bregler's Thomas Eakins Collection, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

6. Bryan J. Wolf, "Professor Henry A. Rowland," in Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and the Heart of American Life, ed. John Wilmerding (London: National Portrait Gallery, 1993), p. 130, no. 31.

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