This wonderful offering by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), a Philadelphian artist, depicts the events of a famed rowing race on the Schuylkill River in May 1872. Eakins was an important American painter, photographer, sculptor, and fine arts educator. H graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in 1866. He is said to have carried American Realism to its height. The Gross Clinic (1875) is considered one of the most importance pieces of American art. But today, we shall focus on The Biglin Brothers, featured below.
Thomas Eakins was at the forefront of Realist painters who shifted the focus of American art from landscape to the figural subjects favoured by the European academies in the 19th century. Working in oil, watercolour, sculpture and photography, Eakins is renowned for his pictures of outdoor activities and portraits of intense, brooding figures—many of whom were his friends and acquaintances—pictured in darkened interiors. Influenced by the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge [(1830-1904)], Eakins was fascinated by the male physique, often unabashedly photographing his models in full nudity while boxing or wrestling. Artsy
For me this is a triumph in composition. The way motion is depicted is just superb. Observe the way the rowers’ arms are locked and the clarity with which their hands gripping the oars is depicted. This is even correct down to the thumb detail on the first rower’s right hand. Following on from the earlier point of Eakins being inspired by Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies; look at the four different sets of rowers shown in this picture, all at different stages of motion. We can draw a direct parallel here with Muybridge’s motion studies, one of which is included below. I have chosen the camel in motion because the others are mostly nude and this post will be going up before watershed.
Another aspect of this which I think is executed very well is the reflection in the water. It cannot be overstated that it is very difficult to depict water. The detailed split reflection in the foreground of the painting helps us to focus on the rowers in the foreground. In addition, the luminosity of this piece is excellent. Eakins has portrayed the two rowers with light coming from their right and created a sort of spot light for them, while also allowing shadows of the other rowers to be cast in the water in less detail.
Finally, I love the addition of the blue flag matching their hats and the steamboat in the right hand corner of the painting. Seen together as a whole, the elements of this painting meld to make a delightful picture of a day at the races in Philadelphia.
I shall endeavour to investigate Eakins’ work with added zeal and may well take on the task of reviewing his masterpiece. But for now, I hope you have enjoyed this small tribute to a magnificent painting.