Thomas Eakins was in the vanguard of the army of Americans who invaded Paris during the latter part of the nineteenth century to complete their artistic education. After returning to his hometown of Philadelphia in 1870, Eakins never left the United
States again. He believed that great artists relied not on their knowledge of other artists’ works but on personal experience. For the rest of his career, Eakins remained committed to recording realistic scenes from contemporary American life.
During the three years Eakins was abroad, competitive rowing on the Schuylkill River, which runs through Philadelphia, had become the city’s leading sport. In England, rowing had long been regarded as the exclusive activity of gentlemen, but in Philadelphia anyone could take part, since rowing clubs made the expensive equipment available to all. Those who chose not to participate could gather on the banks of the river to cheer the oarsmen on, and rowing competitions became some of the most popular sporting events of the century. 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.
At first Eakins painted only acquaintances, but in 1872 the Biglin brothers came to town to compete in a championship race. They were both professional rowers, and John Biglin was a superstar, unmatched as a single sculler (a rower who pulls an oar in each hand) and believed to possess the ideal rower’s physique. Here, Biglin appears in his scull, or racing shell, in the heat of competition, his face fixed in concentration as a second shell streams forward on a parallel course. Eakins has chosen the critical moment when the oarsman reaches the end of a backward stroke and prepares to dip his oars into the water; his next
stroke will propel his racing shell ahead of the competition and right out of the picture’s frame. The river is full of activity on this bright summer day, with a fleet of sailboats and a crew team visible in the distance, but our attention is focused on Biglin, whose
body and scull form an elongated triangle in the center of the picture. The composition itself, with broad, even bands of sky and water, emphasizes the horizontal and imparts a stillness to the scene that counteracts the excitement of the competition.
When Eakins painted John Biglin in a Single Scull, he had only recently begun to work in watercolor. However, he applied himself to mastering the medium with the dedication and selfdiscipline he admired in the athletes he portrayed. Unlike oil paint, watercolor does not allow for error: it can’t be scraped off the surface and painted over if the artist makes a mistake or changes his mind. Many painters enjoy the spontaneity of the watercolor technique, but Eakins worked to ensure that everything came out right on his first attempt. To establish the exact position of the rower, he first made an oil painting that could be corrected, if necessary. And to place the reflections accurately in the water, he made detailed perspective drawings almost twice the size of the final work.
The painstaking process seems to have paid off. Eakins sent a replica of John Biglin to his Paris teacher, Jean-Léon Gérôme, to demonstrate the progress he’d made since returning to Philadelphia. Gérôme praised Eakins’s watercolor as “entirely good.” “I am very pleased,” he wrote, “to have in the New World a pupil such as you who does me honor.”
January 31, 2012 PowerPoint Thomas Eakins John Biglin in a Single Scull
Have a good week! -Mrs. S