Swimming with Eakins: Two Exhibits Draw a Fuller Picture of 19th-Century Artist's Realistic, Earthy Depictions of Human Form

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 7, 1996 | Go to article overview

Swimming with Eakins: Two Exhibits Draw a Fuller Picture of 19th-Century Artist's Realistic, Earthy Depictions of Human Form


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Many Americans consider Philadelphian Thomas Eakins as the country's greatest portrait artist, and most exhibitions have been devoted to his portrait work.

It's fortunate, then, that two traveling shows of his less well-known paintings of athletes have come to Washington at the same time: "Thomas Eakins and the Swimming Picture" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, celebrating his landmark 1885 "Swimming" painting of five nude men at a swimming hole; and "Thomas Eakins: The Rowing Pictures" at the National Gallery of Art, displaying for the first time all of the artist's known rowing pictures.

Washingtonians are familiar with the Georgetown University rowing crews out on the Potomac River. Now city residents can see their ancestors.

The two exhibits, "Swimming," organized by the Yale University Art Gallery, and "Rowers," arranged by the Amon Carter Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, go far in rounding out our picture of Eakins (1814-1916). The smallish exhibitions complement one another and should be seen together. The showings are especially appropriate in view of the National Gallery's comprehensive Winslow Homer exhibit of last winter. Homer and Eakins are recognized as the two greatest American 19th-century painters, and it's fortunate we can see them this close together.

Eakins was fired from his teaching job at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1886 for his insistence on teaching painting from the nude, both male and female. It was one year after he painted "Swimming," in which his models - all of whom were Eakins' students or friends - were swimming or posing on a rocky pier during an outing to nearby Bryn Mawr.

Photographs and oil sketches of the excursion, included in the exhibit, show how Eakins worked not only to portray the sensuality of the human body, but also to create complex, classically inspired compositions. Both "Swimming" and the rowing pictures look so fresh that they seem to have been painted on the spot instead of in the studio.

Eakins painted "Swimming" during his "Arcadian period," during which he depicted neoclassical nude, or semidraped, figures in lyrical landscapes, much as he imagined the ancient Greeks would have painted these scenes. In Europe, "Swimming" wouldn't have rated a second glance because of its subject matter. In Victorian Philadelphia, it caused a sensation and never sold during his lifetime.

It was his 3 1/2 years of training in Paris that set him apart from other American painters, especially from Homer, who visited for only a few months in 1866-67. Eakins pursued an academic, classical training in Paris, first with Leon Bonnat, considered the leading portraitist of the day, and then with Jean-Leon Gerome, who emphasized drawing and scientific accuracy. Gerome generally was recognized as the greatest living French painter of the time.

Eakins also, during a visit to Spain, had fallen under the spell of the 17th-century Spanish painters Diego Velazquez and Jose De Ribera and their bluntly realistic work. Velazquez was to influence Eakins during his entire life, both philosophically and technically. Just as Velazquez was one of the great masters of visual realism of all time, so also Eakins devoted his life to "pursuing the truth" - no easy task in turn-of-the-century Philadelphia. Eakins also determined to devote himself to American subjects and contemporary American themes when he returned home.

Eakins was expert in mathematics, perspective and human anatomy before he went to Europe. He had studied anatomy, along with dissection, at Philadelphia's Jefferson Medical College and later taught anatomy there. This expertise is clear in the nudes of his "Swimmers" and the seminudes of his "Rowers." His passion for scientifically portraying the human form, and his portrait sitters, honestly and without flattery, later cost him esteem and valuable commissions in conservative Philadelphia. …

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