Thomas Eakins made his career portraying upper-middle class residents of his native Philadelphia. Such depictions are anything but static likenesses; instead they show individuals engaged in their chosen profession or avocation, whether at the city's rivers and parks, in its surgical amphitheaters, or in its public and private performance venues, as in Singing a Pathetic Song.
This evocative depiction of the home musicale—popular in Victorian America generally, and in Eakins' own household in particular—exemplifies the artist's unidealized renderings of his contemporaries as well as his love of music. An earnest young singer accompanied by a pianist and cellist in a richly decorated interior concentrates on holding a note of her tune. The pathetic song, the most popular type of melody in 1860s and 1870s America, told tales of woe, such as death or tragic circumstances befalling innocent women or children. Recited by the singer as autobiographical, such ballads commonly moved audiences to tears.
A leading art critic of the day called the work "admirably painted, and . . . absolutely true to nature, a perfect record of the life amid which the artist lives." The painting remained in Eakins's collection until late 1885, when Edward Hornor Coates, a trustee of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (where Eakins taught), asked to exchange it for his Swimming (1885, Amon Carter Museum), a commissioned painting whose depiction of the artist and his male students posed nude in a landscape was both unexpected and controversial.