Entry to the Real: The Rowing Pictures
Eakins was born in Philadelphia on 25th July 1844, to Benjamin and Caroline Cowperthwait Eakins. Benjamin Eakins, a writer and teacher of penmanship, encouraged his son's studies in art. Thomas Eakins enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1861, where he remained until 1866. Eakins was concurrently enrolled in Jefferson Medical College so that he might deepen his knowledge of human form. Frustrated with the poor instruction of the academy, Eakins left for Paris to appeal for permission to study at Beaux-Arts. His appeal a success, Eakins spent three years studying under artistic masters like Jean-Leon Gerome and theorists such as Hippolyte Taine. Eventually, Eakins began to feel that he had learned all that he could from teachers at Beaux-Arts, so he set off for Spain for a brief period of study in Seville. Finally, in 1870, Eakins returned to Philadelphia and never set foot in Europe again.
Thomas Eakins had a special affection for his home country and his hometown. Philadelphia was central to Eakins' identity and the Schuylkill River was central to his heart. Eakins had long been an active participant in the outdoors and his hunting, sailing, swimming and rowing all took place on or around the river. When he returned home from Europe and set up his studio on the top floor of his parents' home he was eager to return to his outdoor pursuits.
In Eakins' time, rowing was a new and swiftly growing sport for the middle class. As American society became industrialized, public sport became an important institution. Unlike in England, where the sport of rowing began, American rowing was not restricted to the wealthy. Club membership allowed those who could not afford the necessary gear to pool financial resources and share equipment. In 1858, nine boat clubs in Philadelphia joined together to form the Schuylkill Navy, the purpose of which was to encourage and regulate amateur rowing competition. As the sport grew, it became common for crowds to form on the bank of the river to cheer for their favorite athletes.
After his return to Philadelphia, Thomas Eakins busied himself with painting domestic scenes. But he quickly got caught up in the excitement of rowing. When he received the opportunity, in April of 1871, of displaying a work at the Union League of Philadelphia he chose to paint a rowing scene rather than a domestic scene. That painting was The Champion Single Scull, later known as Max Schmitt in a Single Scull. Max Schmitt, then a practicing lawyer, had been Eakins' childhood friend and was a leading competitor in amateur rowing. Eakins' decision to paint his friend in the activity of rowing marks the artist's commitment to contemporary subjects. Eakins was one of the first artists to portray rowers in action.
From his first days at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Eakins was fascinated by the human form. While studying in Paris at Beaux-Arts he became accustomed to drawing from the nude male model. Back in America, however, studies of the nude were not socially acceptable. Painting the rower in his athletic activity allowed Eakins to paint the seminude form in a much more acceptable subject.
The Champion Single Sculls reflects Eakins interest in the sciences, not only in its study of human form, but also in its use of geometry. Notice the straight horizontal lines of the bridge and the riverbank. At angles to these lines are the breaks of the water. The manmade elements in the painting all follow geometric form, while the elements of nature, the clouds and trees, follow no such form. The river, of course, is a natural element, but the breaks of the water are formed by the action of the oars, making them manmade.
The contemporary critical response to The Champion Single Sculls was meager. The Philadelphia Inquirer proclaimed: "While manifesting marked ability, especially in the painting of the rower in the foreground, the whole effect is scarcely satisfactory. The light on the water, on the rower, and on the trees lining the bank indicate that the sun is blazing fiercely, but on looking upward one perceives a curiously dull leaden sky." The report from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin was only slightly better: "The artist, in dealing so boldly and broadly with the commonplace in nature, is working upon well-supported theories, and, despite somewhat scattered effect, gives promise of a conspicuous future."
Eakins produced nearly thirty rowing pictures in all from 1871 until 1874. This was a very difficult time for the young artist who was struggling to prove his manhood. His parents had paid his way out of service in the Civil War and then funded his studies and travels in Europe. Eakins was always disturbed to need so much financial support, although his father was clearly quite happy to give. Once back in Philadelphia, he lived, unmarried, in his parents' house. He became engaged to Kathrin Crowell in 1872, but they never married. They were still engaged when she died in 1879. As an artist, Eakins despised the effeminate associations that much of society held to his profession. Perhaps the choice of the popular sport of rowing as a subject for his paintings allowed Eakins to align himself with a more masculine field.

As production of the rowing pictures continued, Eakins shifted his focus from his friend Max Schmitt, to the Biglin brothers, a pair of celebrity rowers from New York. The Biglins issued a challenge in 1872 for English rowers to race them in a pair-oared race. When the challenge was met with silence from England, it was extended to American rowers. Henry Coulter and Lewis Cavitt agreed to race the brothers on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. The Biglin brothers quickly became the favorite team for citizens of Philadelphia and Thomas Eakins wasted no time in befriending the athletes and painting them at work.

Eakins' first painting of the Biglin brothers was The Pair-Oared Shell, which he painted before the race occurred. In this painting, the rowers, as the focus of the work, hold together a grid of vertical and horizontal lines. The blending of these lines in the lower center of the painting produces a convincing treatment of reflection. Eakins, following principles learned at Beaux-Arts, meticulously planned these paintings by creating pencil-sketch perspective studies.
The race between the Biglin brothers and Coulter/Cavitt turned into a sort of world championship of rowing. The Biglins got a poor start in the race but swiftly surpassed the competitors and won. A year later, Eakins would produce two paintings of that race, The Biglin Brothers Racing and The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake. In the first painting, notice the nearness of the competitors' scull, emphasizing the closeness of the race.
The rowing pictures introduced Thomas Eakins to the artistic community. From them we can identify certain characteristics of Eakins realism. The leisure activities of the middle class man had not previously been the subject of painting. By portraying the activity of rowing, Eakins was able to further his interest in the relationship of science and art, particularly as it pertained to human form and to geometric lines. The mass-spectator events of contemporary Philadelphia struck Eakins as being more relevant than traditional subjects. He sensed that these same spectators were increasingly becoming the consumers of his work.