Johns Hopkins Magazine - June 1995 Issue

One Summer in Seal Harbor

Out of the summertime camaradrie of two giants of 19th-century America - - artist Thomas Eakins and Hopkins physicist Henry Rowland - - came one of the most celebrated portraits in American art history. Ironically, Hopkins never acquired the portrait.

By Stephen May

I never saw any one learn so fast." So wrote artist Thomas Eakins in August 1897, describing Professor Henry A. Rowland, world-renowned Johns Hopkins physicist. Eakins was visiting Rowland at his summer home in Maine, in order to create a portrait, and the activity which the distinguished scientist mastered with such alacrity was not some arcane intellectual subject, but the art of riding a bicycle, the latest craze.

It must have been quite a sight: the bearded, intense Eakins, America's finest portrait painter, teaching the fine points of bike riding to the tall, middle-aged academic, famed for his work in diffraction gratings and electromagnetism. An avid cyclist, who had brought his trusty two-wheeler to Maine, Eakins said he "insisted on teaching" the reserved 48-year-old Rowland how to navigate on his own favorite means of transportation.

Alas, the next day, Eakins wrote his wife, "Rowland lost all his nerve....He felt he couldn't ride the bicycle. He tried it but sure enough he couldn't." Within a week, however, Eakins reported happily that Rowland "was immensely delighted to find that he could get on easily as well as off and rode up & down the road a long time." A few days later, "Rowland hired a bicycle and we rode off together," Eakins wrote triumphantly.

Out of the collaboration of these two giants of 19th-century America, in addition to bike riding, came one of the most celebrated portraits in our art history. Eakins, who greatly admired Rowland and his achievements, was convinced that the eminent physicist "ought to be painted," and so asked him to sit for a portrait. When Rowland agreed, Eakins, who rarely left his native Philadelphia, ventured to the scientist's summer home in Seal Harbor, on Maine's idyllic Mount Desert, in July 1897, to spend nearly a month on a preliminary oil sketch. After follow-up visits to Baltimore, Eakins, back in his home studio, transformed the study into a huge, finished likeness by the end of the year.

Although unacquainted before, Eakins and Rowland got along famously. They not only bicycled together, but sailed, built a kite, dined, and conversed, as the priority task of executing the portrait proceeded.

Insights into the creation of the famous likeness come from Eakins's frequent letters to his wife, Susan, in the City of Brotherly Love. The letters were unearthed in recent years and are now in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Correspondence between Rowland and Eakins can be found in the special collections of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library at Hopkins and in the Addison Gallery of American Art at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.

While in many respects kindred souls, Eakins and Rowland came together from quite different backgrounds. A complex figure of controversy and paradox, Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins was born in Philadelphia in 1844, the son of a writing master. He excelled in all studies in high school, having both artistic gifts and a great talent for mathematics and science. He went on to take drawing lessons at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy, and attended anatomy courses at Jefferson Medical College.

In the 1860s Eakins spent three years in Europe, learning his craft through the rigorous academic art training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His major inspiration, however, came during six months in Spain, where he discovered 17th-century masters Ribera and Velázquez. Their objectivity and realism contrasted strongly with the artificiality of French art and reinforced his own ideas about painting. Eakins believed that no formula of ideal beauty could compare with what is real. By being honest in his depictions (sometimes brutally honest), he sought, he said, to "peer deeper into the heart of American life." This love of precision may be what drew him to Rowland, famed for the exactitude of his "ruling engine" and other inventions.

Upon his return to Philadelphia in 1870, Eakins embarked on a career of realism. An active outdoorsman and sports fan, the artist enjoyed rowing, swimming, sailing, hunting, cycling, and attending boxing matches. Not surprisingly, these became the subjects of his works. He created a number of closely observed, carefully crafted depictions of oarsmen on the Schuyl-kill River, fishermen and sailboat races on the Delaware River, coaches-and-horses promenading, and prizefighters in the ring.

Eakins combined his artistic and scientific interests in 1875 with the ambitious and masterful The Surgical Clinic of Professor Gross, which captured a noted surgeon, bloody scalpel in hand, presiding over an operation. Although this huge painting disturbed many viewers with its gory accuracy, it established Eakins's reputation as the leading American realist, and is often cited as the greatest of all American paintings.

An inspiring, demanding, and influential instructor, Eakins taught for a number of years at the Pennsylvania Academy, but his teaching innovations drew harsh criticism. He insisted on working from live, nude models, on using dissection to learn anatomy, and on watching athletes perform to learn motion. It was his insistence on using nude models in mixed classes that caused the biggest furor, and that ultimately forced his resignation in 1886.

He concentrated thereafter on painting portraits. His intense and searching passion for visual reality resulted in likenesses of unsparing, singular depth. "Eakins," said poet Walt Whitman, who sat for a bewhiskered portrayal, "is not a painter; he is a force." Eakins's unidealized, penetrating style offended many sitters. Most people preferred a flattering image to a masterwork, so he received few paying commissions.

By the 1890s most of his work had come to center on honest, though highly sympathetic and emotional images of family, friends, and people accomplished in such fields as music, religion, education, science, and medicine. Rather than depicting conventional views of sitters in repose, Eakins liked to show them engaged, practicing their professions in a typical surrounding. That might be playing the cello, singing a song, writing at a desk or, in Professor Rowland's case, holding a diffraction grating in his laboratory.

Although some honors and awards came his way before his death in 1916, Eakins was largely ignored by the public during his lifetime. Rejected, maligned, and frustrated in his day, Eakins has grown in stature with the passage of time and is today regarded as our finest Realist painter. "In the history of American art, and in the history of the United States in general," New York Times art critic John Russell wrote last year, "Eakins is an indispensable figure."

Soon after marrying his wife Henrietta, Rowland learned he had diabetes. "The certainty of my death in a few years entirely changed my life & I worked for money for wife & children as I never expected to," he wrote.

The man whom this rigorous realist esteemed enough to travel all the way to the Pine Tree State to portray, Henry Augustus Rowland, had been born in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. He was the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Yale-trained ministers, possibly descended from Jonathan Edwards, the fiery Calvinist preacher and theologian.

Fascinated by science as a child, Henry conducted experiments and fashioned apparatus starting at age 3. As a teenager, he gained notoriety in Honesdale when his homemade hot air balloon, consisting of pasted-together newspaper pages, descended in flames on a neighbor's roof. The fire department had to be summoned.

After studying at Phillips Academy in Andover, he followed his bent for science instead of the family traditions of the ministry and Yale, and enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. After earning his civil engineering degree in 1870, he taught the first courses in electrodynamics at R.P.I., where his research into electromagnetism attracted international interest. Rowland's most famous experiment, conducted at Hermann von Helmholtz's laboratory in Berlin in 1875, demonstrated that an electrified body in motion produced a magnetic field.

Rowland's brilliant work brought him to the attention of Daniel Coit Gilman, who had just resigned as president of the University of California to organize The Johns Hopkins University. Gauging Rowland to be "a young man of rare intellectual powers and of uncommon aptitude for experimental science," Gilman recruited the self-assured 27-year-old to head the physics department of the embryonic institution. Then he encouraged Rowland to spend a year in Europe, where he conducted research, met scientists, studied teaching methods, and assembled equipment for his new department.

"Give me time and apparatus," Rowland said to Gilman when he arrived in Baltimore in the spring of 1876, "and if our University is not known, it will not be my fault."

Operating in the best-equipped physics department in the nation, at first located in a former kitchen in a rowhouse on North Howard Street, Rowland continued his trailblazing experiments in electricity, heat, and light, including calculation of the value of the ohm and the mechanical equivalent of heat. Soon Rowland's department set the national standard for higher education in physics.

As a teacher, Rowland tended to get so wrapped up in research and experiments that he treated his students with benign neglect - - something for which most were nonetheless grateful. "To be neglected by Rowland," observed one awed pupil, "was more stimulating and inspiring than the closest personal supervision of lesser men." Many of Rowland's students went on to have distinguished careers, as reflected in a listing of 90 outstanding physicists in a mid-1920s edition of American Men of Science: 10 came from Cornell, eight from Columbia, six each from Clark and Princeton, and an astounding 29 from Hopkins.

Rowland's most celebrated personal contribution was designing an ungainly looking contraption for spectrum analysis which, because of its accuracy, revolutionized optics and opened the way to modern spectroscopy. By means of his ruling engine, light transmitted through or reflected from a concave grating was uniformly spread out in the order in which its component wavelengths excited the sensations of color vision. Eakins would later show this ruling engine in the portrait. By 1882, Rowland was ruling gratings with 43,000 lines to the inch - - a feat greeted with amazement by his colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic.

"The young American was like the Yosemite, Niagara, Pullman parlor car; far ahead of anything in Europe," reported Rowland's friend, John Trowbridge, to President Gilman. The resolution that Rowland's device provided was so superb, in fact, that when it came to mapping solar spectra, the physicist said he could do as much in an hour as could be done with less refined gratings in three years.

A key to the machine's success was the input of Theodore Schneider, Rowland's gifted assistant for a quarter century, who made the precision screws and working parts and did the actual ruling. Their unique engine made Hopkins the world's diffraction grating center; the laboratory produced and sold ghost-free gratings, at cost, enhancing the university's reputation.

"This is the only place in the world where they [gratings] can be made well," Rowland reported to Gilman in 1888, "and every spectroscopist in the world is dependent on them. It would be a considerable blow to science if this was interfered with. There are people all over the world waiting for them [gratings]."

"Over the past 100 years light diffracted by... [Rowland's] gratings in laboratories and observatories around the world has taught us most of what we know for sure about the physical world," observed A.D. Moore in a Scientific American article in 1982.

Rowland was a rangy, strongly built man whose love for the outdoors was reflected in his devotion to fishing, horseback riding, and fox-hunting. He often spent summer vacations fishing in Maine with chemistry professor - - later president - - Ira Remsen, who reported that the physicist was a terrific fisherman.

A bachelor until he was 42, Rowland in 1890 married Henrietta Harrison. They had three children, the youngest of whom, Davidge, was Gilman's much doted-on godson. In Baltimore, the Rowland family lived in a three-story red brick rowhouse at 915 Cathedral Street; it is now occupied by a law firm and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Around the time of his marriage, Rowland underwent a routine medical examination for an insurance policy, an exam that would have a profound impact on the course of his life. Tests revealed that Rowland had diabetes, and he was told - - in those pre-insulin days - - that he had just 10 to 15 years to live. "The certainty of my death in a few years," Rowland wrote in his diary, "entirely changed my life & I worked for money for wife & children as I never expected to."

Thus, in his final decade Rowland turned from pure science to more lucrative consulting work. He secured nearly a score of patents on inventions with commercial applications and participated in ambitious ventures involving multiplex telegraphy and hydroelectric power.

While not widely known today, Rowland is regarded as one of the outstanding scientific geniuses in American history, reckoned among the founders of modern physics, and respected for the quality of the scientists he trained at Hopkins. "Rowland was the greatest physicist in America during his lifetime," declares William G. Fastie, retired Hopkins professor of physics and astronomy. "He was regarded not only in this country but in Europe as one of the great scientists of his era."

It was Rowland's sterling reputation, with which Eakins was familiar, that led the artist to propose painting the great physicist's portrait in the summer of 1897.

As the portrait progressed, Eakins increasingly begrudged the time he spent away from his painting. "I hope there won't be any wind to tempt [Rowland] today," he wrote to his wife.

With its rugged scenery and reputation for simple, informal living, Mount Desert began attracting summer visitors in the mid-19th century. Among them was a distinguished array of artists, led by Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School of painting, who came in the 1840s. He was followed by the likes of Frederic E. Church, Fitz Hugh Lane, and Albert Bierstadt. "This group of easel-wielders," Cleveland Amory observed in The Last Resorts, "soon spread, far and wide, the fame of Mount Desert."

In addition to yachtsmen, sportsmen, and vacationers, clerics and academics came to summer on Mount Desert in the latter half of the 1800s. Whereas Bar Harbor tended to attract the bustling, wealthy social set, who eventually built grand pleasure palaces euphemistically called "cottages," the quieter, neighboring villages of Northeast Harbor and Seal Harbor attracted the intelligentsia and simpler folk living in shingled abodes. Among the early arrivals in Northeast Harbor were college presidents Charles W. Eliot of Harvard and Seth Low of Columbia.

One summer, it is said, six to eight bishops and an equal number of college presidents sojourned in the area. "They were responsible," Amory has noted, "for Mount Desert's succeeding Newport as the country's first-ranking intellectual resort."

Gilman first came to Northeast Harbor in 1885, when he visited his friend Eliot. After staying several summers in a small hotel, the Gilmans built a house on a high bluff overlooking the harbor. (Gilman's efforts to establish a library and a high school, which still bears his name, made him popular with year-round residents. "We always call him `our President,'" said one local at the time. "He treats us as if we were gentlemen.")

While presidents and clergymen congregated in nearby Northeast Harbor, calm, picturesque Seal Harbor became known for its literary, medical, scientific, and academic "rusticators." In addition to Rowland, they included Doctors Simon Flexner and Christian Herter and a gaggle of eminent eggheads from Ivy League universities. At first they gathered at the Glencove Hotel, built in 1884, where the scholarly atmosphere was said to be such that bellboys often conversed with guests in Latin.

Perhaps inspired by his earlier Maine fishing forays with Ira Remsen, Rowland brought his family to stay in various rented lodgings in Seal Harbor in the early 1890s. In 1895-96 he built "Craigstone," a shingle-and-stone structure with a gabled roof and diamond-paned mullion windows, on winding Rowland Road, high above the harbor. Today it still stands, surrounded by fir trees, its wide veranda commanding breathtaking views of the water far below.

Ironically, although Rowland was on the cutting edge of scientific advances and called "the greatest electric genius of his age," the cottage was never wired while he lived there because his wife disliked electricity. The scientist worked in a booklined office with a fireplace, and improvised a small darkroom. (A collection of Rowland's vintage photographs of the area is proudly displayed these days in the Seal Harbor Library.)

It was to this tranquil setting that Eakins arrived, on July 20, having shipped his painting materials on ahead. He stayed at the Glencove Hotel, and peddled his trusty bike up the steep, curving road to "Craigstone" for frequent posing sessions - - when his sitter would sit.

Having earlier in his career painted many views of racing sculls, boat regattas, and sailing races, Eakins relished - - to a point - - Mount Desert's maritime atmosphere. An eager sailor who kept a boat on the Delaware River, he often went sailing with the even more enthusiastic Rowland. They "sailed way out to sea," and sometimes returned slowly, feeling the way through the area's notorious fogs.

But as the portrait progressed, Eakins increasingly begrudged the time he spent away from his painting. "I hope there won't be any wind to tempt him to day," he wrote home. On another occasion Rowland was too distracted by a boat race to pose. There will be "no painting at all to day but sailing instead for Rowland couldn't pose if he tried," Eakins reported to his wife. "He is a big bad boy."

The Eakins-Rowland collaboration also included an effort to build a kite. "We went to the carpenter shop to make sticks for the kite," the artist wrote to his wife. "He whittled and I planed and we soon had good sticks....[Rowland] got the sticks all tied together and after supper we sewed on the muslin." Although presumably designed according to scientific principles, the Eakins-Rowland kite failed to fly very well, much to their consternation.

Ever the perfectionist, Eakins was still concerned about the failure of this joint venture when he returned to Philadelphia in mid-August. In early September, after an extensive search, he sent Rowland "two little Japanese kites and a ball of grilling twine. One might be called Henry and the other Harriet [Rowland's son and daughter]. I wish they had been bird kites with pretty red wings. Anyhow they are ten times prettier than the abomination we made with misnomer scientific. Unscientific it should have been called."

Thanking the painter for the "beautiful Japanese kites," Rowland reported ruefully from Seal Harbor that, "They flit among the trees like large birds and, whenever they see a tree, they dive for it like a living being and perch in its branches until rescued by human hands."

In spite of all the distractions, Eakins focused much energy and attention on the Rowland portrait. As usual, he labored hard over the preliminary oil sketch, which measures a mere 9 by 12 inches. Animated reports to Susan Eakins suggest his excitement as the likeness began to take shape.

Starting with a "pretty satisfactory" early study, he devoted detailed attention to the head, which "was really strong in a way but coarse." While the artist fretted about getting his subject's jaw and neck right, Rowland suggested changes in his forehead. "He don't [sic] want to look sunburnt for he says he is never that in Baltimore," wrote Eakins. The artist dug deep to capture the essence of Rowland: "I cannot afford to miss the refinement of the man."

At first somewhat diffident about the project, Rowland's interest picked up as it proceeded. "Since I got in his hand the spectrum he is greatly interested in the work and poses very well," wrote the artist. "Before that," wrote the artist, "I am sure he didn't think my painting was going to amount to much."

Pleased with their progress, Eakins and Rowland sailed over to Northeast Harbor to discuss the portrait with Gilman and invite him over to see it. "I think the Rowland portrait will be bought of me by the University," the painter confided to his wife.

In Eakins's huge completed likeness, Rowland sits in his laboratory with a diffraction grating, ablaze with color, in his left hand.

Once back in "much warmer" Philadelphia in mid-August, Eakins wrote to Rowland to wish him "September breezes and no fogs" and to inquire anxiously about shipment of the picture, on which he planned further work. Around this time Eakins paid a visit to Rowland's laboratory at Hopkins. There he made a perspective drawing of the famous ruling machine and "got an understanding of it," he wrote the professor. "The directness and simplicity of that engine has affected me and I shall be a better mechanic and a better artist."

Eakins made at least two other visits to Baltimore. The first was to sketch Schneider, Rowland's skilled aide and instrument maker. The second was to go over the portrait with Rowland with an eye to further refinements. By year's end the painting was finished.

In the huge, completed likeness, measuring nearly 7 by 4 1/2 feet, the cerebral Rowland appears as a dramatically lit figure set against a dark background. Seated in his laboratory, he holds in his left hand a diffraction grating, ablaze with spectral color. In the background is his ruling machine, tended by Schneider. Rowland's contemplative face, his strong right hand, and the colorful grating are highlighted, suggesting the artist's priorities. The ambience of a brilliant scientist in his place of work is palpable.

As an unusual final touch, Eakins placed around the portrait a wide chestnut wood frame on which he carved symbols, supplied by Rowland, reflecting the scientist's work. The spectra across the top and bottom suggest lines in the solar spectrum. The circle with radial lines at the upper right is the disk in an experiment Rowland conducted involving convection current, while the numbers below recall his measurements of the speed of light and the mechanical equivalent of heat. The round object at the lower left symbolizes the sun. The differential equation along the left side relates to the sharpness of lines in a spectrum made by grating. These emblems of the sitter's profession, which he seems to be pondering, make the ornamental frame an integral part of the portrait.

Eakins regarded the painting as one of his most important works. "The picture," he wrote, "marks the beginning of a great epoch in astronomy and should be in a public gallery or museum out of danger." Soon after its completion, Eakins exhibited it at the Pennsylvania Academy and showed it four times in the next few years at the National Academy of Design in New York and other prestigious venues.

But in spite of the sitter's approval and his own satisfaction, Eakins found that the Rowland likeness was not to have the fate he had expected. Hopkins did not buy it. "Possibly an effort may be made among my friends to purchase it," Rowland wrote the painter in the fall of 1897, "but the trustees of J.H.U. have never done such a thing. Mr. Gilman thought that it was wonderfully good."

When Rowland's useful and creative life ended with his death in 1901 (he was just 52), his friend President Gilman mourned that "a great man has fallen in the ranks." Referring to his colleague's "powerful mind" and "powerful will," Gilman said, "he would have been a great soldier, a great explorer, a great lawyer...Nobody could walk with him, hunt with him, sail with him, talk with him, work with him, without perceiving his firm grasp, his clear aim, his concentrated energy, his extraordinary powers."

In 1908, seven years after Rowland's death, a friend of Eakins's wrote to Hopkins urging that the university buy the painting. "I wish we owned it," President Remsen replied, "but we have one life-sized portrait of Professor Rowland, and I do not know where I could go to buy a second. The portrait ought to be here. How to get it here is a question that I cannot answer."

Remsen's reference was to a large likeness of Rowland standing in full academic regalia next to his ruling machine, painted by prominent Baltimore artist Harper Pennington. It was purchased in 1901, after some controversy with the painter - - who apparently kept raising his price - - by a group coordinated by Gilman. Draped in black, the portrait hung in McCoy Hall during the memorial service for Rowland.

Pennington's 8-by-5-foot portrait, which is quite accomplished, hung for years in Gilman Hall's Hutzler Undergraduate Library, where it may have been damaged. Today, with tears and a large hole and covered with grime, it is in storage.

After the painter's death in 1916, his widow, too, made attempts to find the painting a home in Baltimore, as part of an effort to sell a number of his paintings to appropriate museums. Her agent, Clarence Cranmer, wrote twice in 1928 to Meyric R. Rogers, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, offering the "fine" Rowland portrait for $5,000.

"It is truly a wonderful painting done in Mr. Eakins best style - - really a work of love - - as Eakins appreciated and admired genius," Cranmer wrote. "The association of this painting with Baltimore - - is surely where it belongs. Our to have these paintings placed if possible where they belong and in trying to fulfill these thoughts many advantageous offers have been refused." The new museum was under construction at the time, which may help explain why there is no record of Rogers's response.

While lamenting the museum's failure to acquire the portrait, Sona Johnston, the BMA's current curator of pre-1900 painting and sculpture, speculates that at the time the institution was more interested in adding Old Masters and more traditional art. "[John Singer] Sargent was acceptable in Baltimore during this time," she says, "but Eakins may have been a bit too modern. His was not considered portraiture in the grand manner."

The Rowland portrait was finally purchased from Susan Eakins in 1929 by Andover alumnus Stephen C. Clark, who presented it to his - - and Rowland's - - alma mater in 1931. The oil sketch made in Maine was acquired by Andover in 1940 from a New York dealer.

Frequently cited by art historians as one of Eakins's finest portraits, the painting known as Professor Henry A. Rowland has been loaned to several important shows, most recently in 1993 to a comprehensive Eakins exhibition at London's National Portrait Gallery.

A postscript. Curious about the lasting effects of his bicycle-riding lessons, Eakins wrote to Rowland from Philadelphia in October 1897, "I hope that as soon as you find the time to count up your money that you will have so much left that you can dance right off to the bicycle shop....As soon as I hear that you have a bicycle I shall get...[a friend] and we will open a bottle of your wine [which Rowland had sent as a gift] and drink to your good success."

Eakins confidently concluded, "I have great faith in your riding ability and would not be a bit surprised if some day I should come to Baltimore and see you riding down the cable slot like a little telegraph boy."

Send EMail to Johns Hopkins Magazine

Return to table of contents.