Every Eakins painting is a variation on a portrait, but in his early years,
many of these portraits were placed in the context of certain genre scenes.
The Portrait of Professor Gross offers many portraits in one
painting under the guise of a surgical scene. By 1890, Eakins put aside these
other contexts and focused strictly on the traditional portrait: a sitter
portrayed in the context of his occupation or lifestyle.
The turn to portraiture marks Eakins' increasingly conservative approach to realism. After losing his position at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for his use of nude male models in a women's class, Eakins rarely returned to the portrayal of the nude or seminude. Eakins was struggling to maintain his position in the Philadelphia art world and to maintain his financial stability. Precious few of his genre paintings had sold and portraits were highly marketable.
The theme of human form was still present in Eakins' later portraits. The bone structure of the human head and hands and the prominence of individual features are consistent elements in each of the portraits. Eakins was concerned with demonstrating the character of his subject through the composition of bone and muscle, even as they appeared under clothing. He was less concerned with idealizing the appearance of his sitters.
The subjects of Eakins' portraits were various professionals: lawyers,
doctors, singers, writers, and the like. In the 1905 portrait of Professor
William Smith Forbes, instructor at Jefferson Medical College, notice the
detail of the fingers and skull of the subject. The fleshless human skull on
the table next to Forbes provides an interesting contrast in the painting and
reminds the viewer that Eakins was as informed about the interior of the
human form as he was of its external appearance.
Some critics claim that Eakins' turn to portraiture signifies an abandonment of realist principles, but such criticism fails to acknowledge the unique characteristics of these portraits. Eakins' emphasis on intense perception of the subject is articulated in the detailed portrayals of his sitters and his refusal to adjust the appearance of the subject in order to romanticize their image.