Rowing on the river

From my old friends Bonnie and Ed — Benita Bendon Campbell and her husband Edward Campbell — a Jacquie Lawson birthday e-card for me in which the Biglin Brothers (two muscular young men in a Thomas Eakins painting) row (on the Schuylkill River, the river of my childhood) for the prize of a birthday cupcake (with a purple banner) — to a noisy band rendition of “Happy Birthday”. Deeply satisfying.

(#1) The Lawson version of the Biglins

And now: the Biglins in real life, and (with a dose of homoeroticism) the painter Eakins.

The Biglins. From Wikipedia:

The Biglin Brothers: John (died April 19, 1886), James (1851–1917) and Bernard (Barney) (1840–1924) were brothers from New York active in professional rowing during the decade following the American Civil War, when rowing was one of America’s most popular spectator sports. John and Barney were the subject of a series of eleven paintings by Thomas Eakins.

… In 1872, John and Barney challenged any English rowing pair to a race. No English team stepped forward, but a team from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, of Henry Coulter and Lewis Cavitt accepted the challenge. The five-mile Schuylkill River course started at the Columbia Bridge and went to the Girard Avenue Bridge and back. One of Thomas Eakins’ many paintings of the brothers, “The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake-Boat,” depicts the midpoint of the race.

(#2) The painting

The brothers won by one minute and were proclaimed world champions. The race was covered by numerous newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, and brought the brothers considerable fame.

That race took place on the river in Philadelphia, Eakins’s beloved city (where the Schuylkill — pronounced /skúkǝl/ — empties into the Delaware River and so flows on to the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic). My part of the river is some miles upriver, where the Tulpehocken Creek (quite close to where I lived as a child) empties into the Schuylkill at Reading PA:

(#3) Map of the Schuylkill River

Thomas Eakins. From Wikipedia:

Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins (July 25, 1844 – June 25, 1916) was an American realist painter, photographer, sculptor, and fine arts educator. He is widely acknowledged to be one of the most important American artists.

For the length of his professional career, from the early 1870s until his health began to fail some 40 years later, Eakins worked exactingly from life, choosing as his subject the people of his hometown of Philadelphia. He painted several hundred portraits, usually of friends, family members, or prominent people in the arts, sciences, medicine, and clergy. Taken en masse, the portraits offer an overview of the intellectual life of contemporary Philadelphia of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In addition, Eakins produced a number of large paintings that brought the portrait out of the drawing room and into the offices, streets, parks, rivers, arenas, and surgical amphitheaters of his city. These active outdoor venues allowed him to paint the subject that most inspired him: the nude or lightly clad figure in motion. In the process, he could model the forms of the body in full sunlight, and create images of deep space utilizing his studies in perspective. Eakins took keen interest in new motion photography, a field in which he is now seen as an innovator.

Eakins was also an educator, and his instruction was a highly influential presence in American art. The difficulties he encountered as an artist were seeking to paint portraits and figures realistically as behavioral and sexual scandals [centered on his using fully nude made models] truncated his success and challenged his reputation.

Eakins and the male bathers. From my 7/13/16 posting “Bodily alignment”:

The larger topic is the alignment of bodies in photography, painting, and drawing: alignment to one another and to features of the physical context, and the direction of gazes in these scenes.

… Formal compositions of this sort are all over art and photography and are often commented on at length in analyses of particular works. Homoerotically inclined works are no exception, and works intended frankly as pornographic are no exception either. Note that publicity shots for gay porn are almost never screenshots, but are instead images set up by the photographer (often images that have little to do with the movies in question); in this situation, porn photographers act just like male photographers in general, and structure the alignment of bodies to one another, the alignment of bodies (singly or in groups) to the physical context, and the alignment of gazes. (All of this can of course be done artfully or clumsily.)

Just look at the many examples of male photography that have come up on this blog. Or consider two homoerotically inclined painters with a particular interest in male bathers (this is a surprisingly crowded field, about as crowded as the world of artists and photographers with a particular interest in locker rooms / changing rooms): [Henry Scott Tuke and Georges Paul Le Roux]

… Rod Williams notes the most famous counterpart to these two paintings [of male bathers], Thomas Eakins’s The Swimming Hole:


On Eakins’s paintings (and photographs) of male nudes and of men swimming, rowing, boxing, and wrestling, see John Esten’s Thomas Eakins: The Absolute Male (2002).

One Response to “Rowing on the river”

  1. kenru Says:

    I always search for original Eakins’ paintings in every art museum I visit. Unfortunately, I rarely come across one.

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