Susan Macdowell Eakins

Susan Macdowell Eakins is best known today as the wife of America's preeminent portraitist, Thomas Eakins. Throughout their marriage her first concern was furthering her husband's career, but she was an accomplished painter and photographer in her own right. Thomas Eakins considered his former student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts "as good a woman painter as he had ever seen."

Susan, the fifth of eight children, grew up in Philadelphia. Her father, William Macdowell, an avowed liberal and freethinker, gave his children considerable freedom and encouragement. A respected engraver, he was in contact with many Philadelphia artists. MacDowell permitted his daughter to set up her studio in the attic, and he and other members of the family posed for her frequently. In 1876, Susan Macdowell first saw Thomas Eakins at the Hazeltine Gallery, where his painting of a surgical operation, The Gross Clinic, was shocking Philadelphia with its bloody realism. She was impressed at once and decided to study with him at the Academy. MacDowell was twenty-five when she enrolled at the Academy in 1876, and she studied there for the next six years. One of Eakins’ finest students, she was the first winner of the Mary Smith prize, as well as a leader of the student body.

Macdowell became Eakins’ loyal confidante and they were married in 1884. After their marriage, she continued to paint sporadically, but loyally took over all tasks necessary to free her husband for time in the studio: shipping his work, answering correspondence, and entertaining the students, guests, nieces, nephews, cats, and dogs (and even a monkey) that kept their home bustling.