The great realist portrait painter from America, Thomas Eakins, spoke to us in his paintings, inviting us, the observer, to communicate with his world. His paintings praised the human spirit, whether in sport, academia or at rest. He cared little for academic landscapes devoid of people. His interest was to paint the human figure with a keen eye to the culture they represent, and for the emerging modern "landscape" of ideas. Eakins' world was experiencing enormous change in the early 1870s. This modern period in our nation's history was filled with signs of change in every aspect of life. The railroad was expanding with an accelerating speed across America. Sport as a pastime as well as a profession was gaining respectability for both women and men. The advances of science in medicine were making possible not only the saving of lives, but the study of the human specimen. Eakins would be a part of this. He would document these changes and advances as quickly as they were happening, at almost photographic speed!
Eakins came from an academic Philadelphia family parents both teachers and he approached his own studies with the zest of the master teacher. He was fascinated with drafting in particular, a skill that would figure into all his paintings. He developed his keen sense of line and perspective while still in high school. It was then that he realized that he needed to paint, and to paint with a faculty for correct observation. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts after high school. This school was modeled on the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. At the Academy, Eakins drew endlessly from casts of antique sculpture. Finally, during his last years there, he was given the opportunity to study the nude, a course open to men only. He was driven toward perfection. How would he create the human form without understanding how the muscles and bones worked in harmony to create movement and action? In 1864 he enrolled in an anatomy class at Jefferson Medical College, where he learned, first hand, about the structure of the human body. Here began Eakins' lifelong interest in science that consistently contributed to his art. He would appreciate from that point on how interconnected and interdependent these two studies would necessarily be. A tireless student, Eakins achieved what he considered a knowledge of the human anatomy "as great as that of most physicians, and considerably greater than that of most artists."
He needed to be in Paris, the center of the modern world of painting and sculpture. In 1866 he left for four years of intense study at the École des Beaux-Arts. He practically bullied his way into a class! A rigorous, structured bastion of conservative methodology, the École was entrenched in neo-classical tradition and protocol, a fact which only excited Eakins. He learned as much French as possible and after a mere six months, was admitted to the school, and eventually to the atelier of the then very popular and accomplished leader of the conservative establishment, Jean-Léon Gér“me. Gér“me had already exhibited several times in the United States, and was well known to any aspiring American art student. Eakins felt at home at his atelier. And, although the group which became the Impressionists was already making groundbreaking art, history really, with their avant-garde use of color, light and texture, Eakins focused his attention on portraiture and the life of the Parisians. He, like the Impressionists, visited the notorious nightspots cafés and dance halls in an ever-ravenous quest to see the human body in action.
And so young Thomas Eakins learned to paint in Paris. Frustrating though it was to endure the tedious five months of obligatory drawing with strict attention to line before picking up a paintbrush, his delayed entrée into oil painting eventually arrived. Once again, the young painter could not work fast enough, hiring models to sit for him late into the night. At first he was puzzled by how difficult the medium was. "I remember many a trouble that I have got into from trying to play my tunes before I tuned my fiddle up." In letters home to his parents, he described the philosophy of the "big artist [who] keeps a sharp eye on Nature & steals her tools… what to do with light the big tool & then color then form. Eakins had firmly rejected the work of the Impressionists in Paris characterizing their work as effeminate not so much in terms of subject matter, their attention to "naturalism," but rather in terms of technique. He would applaud, however, their attention to the reality in what they painted the immediacy of it and how they were able to capture a moment, a breath, in time. He wrote to his father about this, "I love sunlight & children & beautiful women & men their heads & hands & most everything I see & some day I expect to paint them as I see them and even paint some that I remember or imagine [or] make up from old memories of love & light & warmth…"
Eakins returned home, energized by all that he had learned, but anxious to return to his roots on American soil. He yearned for the American scene and felt confident that he could paint what he knew with honesty and clarity. Here began his work in portraiture and intimate scenes of home life. He resumed his interest in sailing, hunting and rowing; this last interest would figure prominently into his sculling scenes a couple of years later. Although he had not rowed on the Seine while in Paris, he knew the Schuylkill in Philadelphia. At this time, rowing, or sculling, had become a popular pastime as an amateur sport. In fact, the first international amateur regatta was held on the Schuylkill in Philadelphia at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, just two years after Eakins pained
John Biglin in a Single Scull
. We might assume that Biglin rowed on one of the American club crews, side by side with crews from Columbia and Yale, Trinity, Dublin and First Trinity from Great Britain and the London Rowing Club. Eakins would steal much from Nature, learn to "steal her tools" when creating his masterpiece
The Champion Single Sculls
(1871), a canvas which would insure his place as the leading American Realist of the 19th century.