In his painting,
The Champion Single Sculls
, Eakins captured on canvas a fleeting moment. In this "snapshot" we become a part of the scene as well; we are there. This canvas represented Eakins' first tribute to the sport of rowing, a sport which would come to symbolize, for him, the place of the common man as hero in the American scene. Though others had also chosen this theme to honor, namely Currier & Ives, this rendition of Eakins' became something of a benchmark in what was known as the new American Realism. Let's take a closer look. (http:/www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/eakins/scull.jpg)
The viewer is struck by its immediacy, its presence. We are invited, also, into the decade; in this Eakins is a supreme realist and documentarian. Juxtaposed with the calm river, with the unmoving trees and quiet sky of
The Champion Single Sculls
, is the new railway bridge cutting across the idyllic scene. The bridge signals the future; a train, barely visible, rushes off to the right. A steamboat in the distance counterbalances the bare physicality of the two men in the foreground and near right. An easy triangle connects the three men in the distant red scull wearing traditional Quaker garb, reminiscent of the earliest days of rowing, with the two in the foreground dressed in then modern clothing, leading both figuratively and actually the way. What is here in the reality of the picture is the calm of the water, the ancient trees, the stone structures, the older, historic bridge, the calm following a successful practice. What has come to break the mood is the contemporary attire, the modern mansion up on the hill to the right, the iron of the new bridge, the speed of engines and steamboat, the coldness of grays and whites, the future speeding off. This image is furthered by the struggle of the man in the second scull (this is Eakins; his name in on the scull), still rowing hard, pulling towards his future. Eakins speaks to us about his world. He is a recorder, a documentarian of sorts, using his paint as words. In this snapshot of the race, we catch a glimpse of the changing scene of the new day and witness the pull of an age. In this, too, we glimpse the quite sublime beauty of the natural world, and respect for the common man in the continuum of life. Change is occurring fast enough, but the old is not anachronistic; it blends with the new, signaling acceptance and welcome.
Eakins' renditions of rowing races were meticulously crafted, first by drafting his scene on paper. Intersecting lines formed the geometric network for the scull(s), bridges, turning stakes (if any), and horizon line. Eakins used his system of solving difficult perspective problems by first mapping his canvas, geometrically. The painting,
John Biglin in a Single Scull
, followed Eakins' same rigorous use of descriptive geometry in its planning stage. Eakins had first drafted an enormous, mathematically precise study of the perspective that his painting would follow. As viewers we feel only several feet from the rower, close enough to take a picture, but this impression is only a masterful trick of calculated perspective. He had devised a plan for first creating the image in draft form. With that, he could manipulate the drawing mathematically, change the size of his objects on the imaginary plane of the picture, to create his desired perspective. He wrote, "To fix the distance [from the picture to the eye] you consider how large you want one of your important objects to be in the picture: if you want it life size in the picture, your drawing must be distant from the eye as far as that object. If you wish any object to be in the picture half as big as real, you must place your picture plane at half the distance from the eye of that object; if quarter as big, quarter the way & so on."
Eakins' ability to create this real perspective was masterful. In
John Biglin in a Single Scull
, he actually drew the painting first on the canvas; then he painted over it so that the underlying interrelationships of lines and intersections were only faintly visible, even to him. Nothing would be exaggerated; the effect would be true, realistic. Gustave Caillebotte also used perspective to great effect. We will look at two of his most powerful paintings two that deal with perspective and line on the technical side, and with his timely subject matter that document his civilization equally well. The French Impressionist, Edgar Degas, must be acknowledged here as having influenced both of these painters. It would be impossible to evaluate the contribution of both Eakins and Caillebotte to the world of art without paying homage to his genius. But, before that, let's take a closer look at the
John Biglin in a Single Scull
. The following analysis is a tool for observation and understanding. With the intent of assigning a similar, though less detailed and concise, activity for students in an art class, the "modus operandi" of Jules D. Prown is offered below.
John Biglin in a Single Scull
. 1873. Oil on Canvas, 61.9 x 40.6 cm. Yale University Art Gallery
A man rowing a scull in calm water, left side in profile, sits with arms extended front, clasped around both oars. His left, partially visible oar extends down through the oarlock towards the water out of sight. The man is dead center in the painting. He wears a white, sleeveless T-shirt with red trim around the arm and a red bandana, tied in a back knot. The wrap creates a band around his forehead, over the ear and to the back. The bandana covers his head, much of his forehead and extends down behind his left ear, showing short, brown hair forward and left of his ear, and below the bandana, towards the knot. He has a light brown moustache, seen only on his left side and front; his left eyebrow scowls over squinting eye. A deep wrinkle outlines his moustache. His tanned face and neck contrast with paler arms and legs. He wears black pants of cotton or wool, rolled up over his knees. Shirt tucks into the pants. His clutching left hand, fingers grasping, and the bent, pointer finger of his right hand on the other oar is visible, just above his left. The well-developed muscles of his left arm are detailed; the elbow is locked. Veins appear at the elbow and extend down towards his left hand. His right arm, partially visible behind and above his left arm, is darker. His right upper arm is in partial shadow up to his shoulder, where red trim appears on his shirt. His bent legs are hairy and muscular. A shadow forms on the lower interior of his right calf. He wears white socks, the tips of which peek out over the rim of the scull.
The scull is reddish orange and sits 6 - 8" above the water. We see about one foot of the scull on either side of the rower's body. The gunnel sticks up and angles out, hiding the rower's seat, lower calf and feet. It runs to the right of the canvas and out of our view, lifting upwards slightly, brightened by the sun's rays just above the left oar. The front of the gunnel, extending left and out of our view carves down in step-like design to the floor of the scull. There, the riggers of both sides connect, through a wooden thole pin, the two sides of the gunnel. The riggers, attached approximately 5" apart, meet at the base of the oarlock (of natural wood with blue trim), divide there, separate and fasten to the gunnel, under the rower's seat, again about 5" apart. The top points of rigger attachment are approximately 1" wider than the lower points.
Under the rower and his scull, leading down to the foreground of the painting, a vague reflection of the man and his boat mirrors in broken waves. Blue water breaks up the rippled image. Spots of red reflected from the boat dot the bluish-gray water behind him. From left, midway in the painting, the tip of another scull enters the painting, truer red with a white edge, appearing on the top and continuing 2/3 of the way to the tip of the scull. This section is all we see. A landscape of warm browns, yellows and cool green crosses the canvas, 1/3 of the way down from the top of the painting, intersecting behind the rower at the point where his bandana meets his forehead in front and just above the knot on his bandana. A speck of white at the extreme left of the painting dissolves into a thin line at the water's edge. The sky is a lighter shade of blue, cloudless and clear, though at the painting's top edge a cloudy form appears, indicating an overcast, sunny sky below.
Lines and geometries abound. An imaginary line drops just right of center at the top of the canvas and extends straight down through the back of the rower's neck, the oarlock, continuing through the reflection of the oarlock in the water to the bottom of the painting. Parallel lines form between the line of landscape, the top of the oarlock, the gunnel and bottom of the scull, continuing to the bottom of the canvas through the rippling waves. Shadows from the rigging originating points fall down and to the left onto the boat. These shadows, if continued up, would frame the rower and draw our vision up to his face and off to the right, in the direction of his boat. A diagonal line formed by the rower's arms meets the oar and forms a V. Other Vs are formed between the separated riggings where they meet the oarlock, the tip of the approaching scull and the knees.
Angles formed by the rower's arms, back and oar create a two-dimensional triangle. A pyramid may be seen of his body when taken in three-dimensions. Negative space of the water between the boat and landscape make flat, opposing triangles in the center third of the painting. The tip of the entering scull and the tip of the right arm oar are also triangular. His arm between elbow and wrist create an isosceles triangle as well as a pyramid when observed three-dimensionally.
Rectangles divide the canvas into thirds lengthwise top to the landscape, landscape to the bottom of the boat, foreground water to bottom of canvas. Widthwise, thirds appear with the rower in the center third. Planes of rectangles stretch across the canvas by the boat and are mimicked in the rhythmic reflecting waves. Parallel shadows of the rigging attachments, continue up to parallel the rower's parallel calves.
Ovals form in the head, hands, knees and torso. Seen from above, the rower and his scull create an elongated diamond shape, where his shoulders and knees are at the center. Rhythms beat in the repetition of waves.
The textures include that of skin, nails (finger), water, wood, metal of the rigging, cotton or wool fabric in the clothing (bandana, shirt, trousers, socks) of the rower, hair on the rower's face, head, arms and legs, tape on the grasp of the oar, paint on the boats and center of the foreword oar, flora on the tree line, sand, again at the tree line, air.
We may imagine that we are about 10 feet from the rower, perhaps in another scull, certainly not on the shoreline. We are close enough to capture this scene as if in a photograph. There is little breeze; the only movement in the water is that of the parallel waves, moving from right (of the canvas) to left, indicating that the rower rows off to the right, his back facing the direction of the boat. The cool water balances the hot sun. It appears to be late summer; a block of trees lines the horizon, the rower wears warm-weather clothing. He rows on a river or lake as witnessed by the close proximity of the landscape in the background. Judging by the angle of the sun, it is after noon perhaps two o'clock since the sun hits the rower's back and top of head dead-on. The heat is intense. The man looks strong and capable as he pulls his weight; his intent eyes, arms and legs reveal an experienced, strong rower. This is further attested by the worn thole pin, which serves as fulcrum for his oar. He has been in this boat before! He bends forward, going back to the catch. His craggy face indicates a man in his thirties, of about 5'10" and weighing perhaps 145 - 165lbs. He is absorbed in his task and cares nothing for the viewer. We imagine that the rower is in a race, as another scull moves into the composition from the left, trying to catch up. We want to pull, and to cheer on, (we see this approaching scull!), but prudence keeps us quiet; the rower needs to concentrate. He seems confident as the tips of his oars will soon catch the water and swirl it intensely behind. He has bent forward to extend his arms fully, so as to get maximum pull. We are ready for the speed as his oar catches. In the next second he will straighten his back and legs. As he pulls his submerged oars, his scull is propelled forward to the right of the canvas, and to the end of the race.
It is hot. We can feel the heat empathically off the rower's sun-baked body. The water must cool this heat a bit, around the scull. A breeze would be felt as he advances through the water, propelled forward. We may smell the water, the summer air, perhaps even the smell of the rower.
We will hear the slap of the oars as they catch the water and the rushing of the water immediately thereafter. We might hear the grunts and groans of the rower with each pull. We might hear this from the rower in the approaching scull as well. The rower probably tastes the salt of his own perspiration if his sweat drips down his face. He is probably wet with perspiration, especially under his arms and his knees. His bandana might be wet with perspiration around his forehead, though we cannot tell by the color. Perhaps his whole head is wet. His fingers are probably moist in between and around the tape of the oar. The soles of his feet are hot, since they are continuously pushing against the foot spot. His legs, arms, back and lungs ache with the exertion of this activity. He is breathing hard, though he seems practiced and therefore in shape for this event.
If this is, in fact, a race, there might be several sculls in the water, enthusiasts on the shoreline. Perhaps people are shouting. However, this is not a scene taking place today, as witnessed by the early scull, so we cannot know if spectators would be in attendance.
The rower's stern, outward demeanor gives us confidence in the outcome of the race, though we feel the tension. Nothing is staged or static in this scene, but realistically photographic. This is not a scene from a race of today the rower's clothing suggest the early years of scull racing. The seat would be greased, as the moving seat had not yet been developed. The bandana suggests America. But, where is he? We might guess by his tanned neck and face but paler arms and legs that rowing is his sport, not profession; he has a day job. His absorption in the task at hand suggests that he knows the water, confident of the end of the race. No aesthetic is offered, but rather an honest depiction of a hard fought race.