Thomas Eakins championed unfettered realism in American painting from his position as director of the Pennsylvania Academy’s Art School. An enigmatic and controversial figure, he was fired from his position in 1888 for exposing himself to a female student (in the name of art, no doubt).
Because of Eakins’ camera-like eye, a painting such as the above, The Biglin Brothers Racing, can appear deceptively straightforward. Striving for accuracy, Eakins went to great lengths to capture the reflections of light off the water. He applied the same care to the representation of the muscular bodies of the Biglin brothers. However, Eakins’ realism masks a wealth of creative license.
In actuality, the composition is highly calculated, and a number of telling details emerge from close looking that enhance the narrative impact of the final painting.
For one thing, the light is entirely Eakins’ own invention. According to the National Gallery: “The white sleeveless shirts and blue silk head kerchiefs worn by John and Barney Biglin are factually correct, but the race is shown in the afternoon light, whereas the start was delayed by rain until about 6:30 pm.” There’s invented drama and design as well:
As another historian points out, “In the immediate foreground we can see a sliver of the competitors’ racing shell, and Barney Biglin, in the bow seat, glances over his shoulder at it, gauging his position. His brother John is completely focused and poised to begin his next stroke. Perfectly attuned to one another, the brothers’ bodies are identical in posture. The angles of their torsos are repeated in the diagonal clouds and tops of the trees, while the shells and shoreline divide the space into stable horizontal bands” that suggest the speed and gliding forward motion of the rowers.
“Eakins was an enthusiastic rower himself, but after his time in Paris he regarded the activity less as a form of recreation than a fertile source of subject matter that combined his dedication to modern life with his interest in anatomy. Even before he embarked on a classical European education that involved drawing from the nude, Eakins had studied human anatomy as part of his artistic training. Fascinated by the mechanics of movement, he was naturally drawn to athletes in action.” Read more about Eakins’ John Biglin in a Single Scull.
In 1874, competitive rowing on the Schuylkill River, which runs through Philadelphia, was the city’s leading sport, and rowing competitions were among the most popular sporting events of the century. For Eakins, it was a prime opportunity to study the male form in motion.
Eakins ended his life unhappily. Though distraught over the loss of his Academy position in 1888, he did nothing to adjust his behavior, and as the century wore down, he was dismissed from one institution after another. He was also implicated in the ruin of two young women: one, a student, claimed that he had promised to marry her; the other, his niece, claimed that he had forced her into a compromising position. Both were committed to mental hospitals, and his niece later shot herself.
And even though his grisly masterpiece, The Gross Clinic, sold for $68 million in 2006, Eakins was unable to sell many of his works during his lifetime. When he died in 1916, a large body of artwork passed to his widow, Susan Macdowell Eakins. She carefully preserved it, donating some of the strongest pieces to various museums as a way of securing his legacy. When she in turn died in 1938, much of the remaining artistic estate was destroyed or damaged by executors, and only the remainders were belatedly salvaged by a former, still loyal, student.
Radical Color and Form
There’s a book and exhibition to be done someday showing the defining influence that Paul Cezanne’s work had on the two greatest figures of turn-of-the-20th-century poetry and sculpture, Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin.
At least a branch of the LA County Museum of Art is working a little on the latter. True Nature: Rodin and the Age of Impressionism, on exhibit in Los Angeles fromNovember 12, 2022 through March 26, 2023, brings together works by the greatest modern (neo-Romantic, really) sculptor with paintings by Cezanne and others as well as photographs from the Impressionist period. More on the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts St. Pete here.