Saturday, 2 August 2008
Art: The Swimming Hole by Thomas Eakins
Oil on canvas
27 3/8 x 36 3/8 in. (69.5 x 92.4 cm)
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth
"Eakins was profoundly influenced by the ideas of Walt Whitman, with whom he became close friends, after painting his portrait in 1887-1888. Eakins' carefully composed images of naked youths in arcadian landscape settings (such as The Swimming Hole, 1893-1895) constitute visual equivalents of Whitman's poems, celebrating male beauty and comradeship.
As a teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, Eakins emphasized to his students the importance of the study of the naked male figure. His insistence that women students draw from unclothed male models caused him to be dismissed from his position at the Academy in 1886. His attempt to establish an independent Art Students League ended in financial disaster. Out of fashion for the rest of his life, he struggled to make a living by painting commissioned portraits.
During his later years, Eakins certainly derived a great deal of emotional support from his wife, Susan Macdowell, a former student, whom he married in 1884, shortly before his fortieth birthday. Susan Macdowell shared many of her husband's interests, and, like him, she was an ardent admirer of Whitman's poetry. His austere portrait of her (1899) reveals both her strong personality and her warm affection for the artist.
Eakins also developed a very close relationship with Samuel Murray (1869-1941), a working-class Irishman whom he trained as a sculptor. The two shared a studio for eleven years, and they took extended wilderness trips together. Like Whitman's romantic associations with younger men, this relationship of an older and younger man corresponds with Platonic ideals of male relationships.
There has been much scholarly speculation about the extent to which Eakins was fully aware of the homoerotic implications of his treatment of the male figure. Even though the modern concept of homosexuality had not yet been formulated, it seems very unlikely to the present writer that this forthright and honest supporter of Whitman's ideals would be entirely naive about this aspect of his work.
In particular, his numerous photographs of his students at the site of the Swimming Hole (1883) evoke the erotic appeal of the youths. In these photographic studies, he consistently posed the figures so as to emphasize their genitals and to suggest various physical and emotional interactions among them. In his final painting of this scene, Eakins modestly concealed their genitals, but he subtly revealed his voyeuristic fascination with the youths by portraying himself as a swimming figure (in the lower right foreground), gazing longingly up at them. "