The Three Fates


Susan MacDowell Eakins ( American, 1851 - 1938 )

c. 1881
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General Description

In Greek mythology, the Three Fates were goddesses who determined the course of human lives, represented by lengths of thread. Clotho spun the thread of life, Lachesis determined its length, and Atropos cut the cord. One of several versions of the subject begun around 1881 by Susan Hannah MacDowell (later Susan Macdowell Eakins), this sketch may have originally been intended as the design for a theatrical backdrop at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It appears to have been cut down from a larger canvas that contained a nude sketch of a woman, possibly by the artist's instructor and future husband, Thomas Eakins.

Susan Hannah MacDowell was already an accomplished, exhibiting photographer when she began studying with Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1880. She soon became one of his closest students and ultimately his wife in 1884. After her marriage, Eakins devoted the bulk of her time to defending her often-controversial husband, ultimately crafting his legacy through selective collaboration with early biographers and curators. Prior to her husband's death in 1916, Eakins had little time to produce her own paintings, though she continued to pursue her interest in photography. The bulk of paintings attributed to her are the result of her years as a widow, before her own death in 1938. During her life she received ample praise when her work appeared in group shows, but the honor of a solo exhibition came posthumously. In recent years, Eakins' own works have received increasing scholarly attention.

Adapted from

William Keyse Rudolph, DMA label copy (1960.156), October 2005.

Fun Facts

  • Known as a portraitist, The Three Fates is the only allegorical motif known in Susan Macdowell Eakins' body of work.

  • In addition to painting and photography, Susan Macdowell Eakins was also a talented pianist. She shared her artistic talent with her father, who was an engraver and photographer.

  • Moirai is the Greek term for the three goddesses known collectively as the Fates.

  • Eakins first met his wife at the opening exhibition for The Gross Clinic (1875, Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts), which received ample criticism for its detailed depiction of blood and human anatomy. Susan Macdowell Eakins, then Susan Hannah Macdowell, greatly admired the portrait as an homage to American intellectual achievement and enrolled in her future-husband's classes at PAFA in 1878. The two were married in 1884, and she remained devoted to Thomas Eakins' career and reputation for the rest of her life.

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