It is interesting here to look at the environment which nurtured these painters. Thomas Eakins was a native Philadelphian, born in 1844. His father was a successful writing and penmanship teacher who encouraged Eakins to explore his diverse interests in the pursuit of excellence. Philadelphia was a city rich in opportunities for just such an endeavor.
Congruent with the time of Eakins' birth, the Pennsylvania Railroad was incorporated, the largest in the country, offering modern, widespread travel to everyone in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. It was a model system. Philadelphia had founded several fine newspapers at this time, notably the
Philadelphia Evening Bulletin
. The city was becoming a major publishing city, boasting, too, the
Saturday Evening Post
. It was turning into a Mecca for journalists and writers. In addition, the American Medical Association was organized in Philadelphia in 1847. These two last events influenced the young Thomas, his interest in the written word and his fascination with medicine. His hometown was a bright spot on the American horizon, one that Eakins would grow to love and honor especially on canvas.
Situated on the Schuylkill River, Philadelphia also offered leisure activities for its burgeoning masses. Eakins loved boating of all kinds. He had learned to row during his adolescence and missed it terribly while in Paris. Through Paris ran the river Seine, a sometimes-melancholy reminder of his beloved Schuylkill; he did not take part in the sport of rowing while there. As a boy Eakins witnessed the very first organized boat races in the East. American amateur boatmen and women had organizing boat clubs in Philadelphia, Boston, New York and New Haven. (The first college boat club was at Yale). As a result of the Industrial Revolution in this country, people were moving into Philadelphia by the thousands, leaving the countryside for the many opportunities to be found in the city. The Schuylkill figured prominently into their leisure time, another important element taking its place in the expanding culture of working Philadelphians. The city was diverse in industry, railroads and shipbuilding, as well. The Schuylkill River, cutting through the center of the city, served its population as an avenue for industry and leisure, by bringing together each element of the society on its shores.
In Paris, the scene was different. This was a city of ancient streets and architecture, of bridges, hundreds of years old. 'Vieux Paris' was the old world while Philadelphia was the new. Yet the façade of Paris was about to change. Everything was in a state of flux and growth, of change, renewal and experimentation. This was certainly evident in the world of art. The Impressionists were breaking all the rules of traditional painting, challenging the great masters in style, content, even in technique. They documented the changes in their society with their revolutionary technique on the one hand, and with their enormously varied subject matter, on the other. The history of art would forever be changed.
With the arrival of Baron Haussman, Prefect in Paris, equally profound changes came to fruition on the physical face of this Gallic city. It was he who brought about the changes in the avenues and buildings in this great city. Parisians had tried before to improve the physical availability of the city but to no avail, relying instead on the narrow 'rues' that intertwined through residential and business 'quartiers.' Haussman reinvented the city's streets into grand boulevards, opening up the city from east to west, from north to south. As a result, not only did commerce experience new opportunities, but also the greater society benefited from these changes. As in Philadelphia, a new leisure class was developing; the expanding boulevards and squares offered places for relaxation, social interaction and pastime activities. Of course, these enormous changes met with enormous criticism. Many questioned the rightness of these improvements, sensing that Paris was in the process of losing its particular French character. Yet, what transpired, and what continues to transpire in Paris, is a curious love affair between the old and the new. Parisians grew to embrace their tree-lined Champs-Elysées, their arched Rue de Rivoli and even the quaint streets transformed into squares, 'places,' where French of all classes and interests would congregate. Even today, change evokes the same reticence as it did in the nineteenth century. Parisians were horrified at the massive Centre Pompidou, a center for learning and Modern Art; they were disbelieving of I.M. Pei's pyramid in the center of their beloved castle the Louvre. Yet, with heels dug firmly in their cultural cobblestones, they softened, as always, to embrace the new with loving arms.
What had witnessed and persevered through all the change was the Seine, the 485-mile river that cuts through the center of Paris, its largest river port. The Seine has long been a magnet for industry, travel and entertainment. The river is fast moving and navigable through two-thirds of its length. It has provided both opportunities for growth industry and subjects for representation through art. And like the Schuylkill, the Seine has offered Paris' sibling banks a haven for leisure time.