Sports of the Real
For painters like Eakins, the growing "art" of photography was a profound influence on the move towards realism. The photograph seemed to show the subject as it really was, while the painting offered only an unlikely ideal image of reality. The camera also afforded the artist new means of studying form, particularly as regards the form in motion. In 1878, under a commission from the governor of California, Eadweard Muybridge began to study the motion of horses with the use of a battery of cameras. Eventually Muybridge moved his studies to Philadelphia after the University of Pennsylvania agreed to fund his work. In 1884, an outdoor studio was constructed that consisted of a track lined on one side with cameras and on the other by a black shed. Eakins quickly got involved with Muybridge's work by volunteering as both a model and a photographer.
Eakins continued his photographic studies of the human form with his students at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He would take groups of male students into wooded land around the Schuylkill River and photograph them as they boxed, wrestled, and swam in the nude. From these photographs, the artist not only developed his lectures on anatomy and the human form, but also conceived many of his best paintings.
Eakins painted The Swimming Hole c. 1884-1885 by imitating a photograph he took of his students swimming in the river. The perspective of the painting is from exactly the same angle as the original photograph, but the students have been replaced by a group of varying-aged men, none of whom are in similar poses to those of the students. Eakins' imitation is of the setting and activity, but not of the figures.
Photography challenged the parameters of painting in that it seemed to claim a monopoly on the real. Artists like Eakins appropriated the skills of photographic perception in order to broadened cultural restraints on artistic expression. If the camera could portray reality as it really was, so could the paintbrush. Eakins used painting to capture artistic "snapshots" of spectator events. As the century drew to a close, prizefighting offered an ideal setting for capturing the human form in strenuous activity.

Eakins produced three boxing paintings in all and one wrestling painting. For two of the works, Between Rounds and Salutat, his model was Philadelphia prizefighter Billy Smith. Eakins' painting of Smith was based not only on the artist's attendance at over 300 rounds of fighting, but also on several sittings the athlete had given in Eakins' studio. The fighter later wrote in an account of his relationship with the artist: "Mr. Eakins, to me was a Gentleman and an Artist, and a Realist of Realists. In his work he would not add or subtract. I recall, while painting the portrate. I noticed a dark smear across my upper lip, I asked Mr. Eakins what it was. He said it was my mustache, I wanted it of, He said it was there, and there it stayed. You can see that he was a Realist."

In analyzing Salutat, one is struck by its similarities to The Portrait of Professor Gross. The audience is seated in a steeply tiered amphitheater while the focal point, the athlete, is in the center, under the greatest light. The nude form of the earlier painting was the patient, but in Salutat, the nude is the athlete, who, as a hero of the middle class, is more analogous to the surgeon than he is to the patient. The choice of prizefighting as a subject allowed Eakins to continue his pursuit of the nude or seminude form.
Eakins used photography to produce his 1899 painting Wrestlers. Eakins' friend Clarence Cranmer, a sportswriter, helped him to find two athletes for the pose. From a photograph taken in his studio, Eakins painted the scene, following the details of the photo to near exact replication. The two wrestlers are depicted in a gymnasium, possibly the Quaker City Athletic Club. The top wrestler has pinned his opponent in a half nelson and a crotch hold. Behind them are three men: an athlete using a rowing machine, a referee, and another wrestler.
Self-improvement publications of the late 1800's informed middle class men of the need to balance mental exertion with physical exertion. Those who were not athletically inclined would participate in sports as spectators, reporters, sketch artists, or officials. As a youth, Eakins was very active in sports, but as he aged, his stocky figure precluded him from athletic competition. As a spectator and a painter of sports, Eakins was able to balance the mental activity of his arts with the physical activity of athletics. Sports also allowed Eakins a means of studying human form in motion. His portrayal of the figures of the athletes was largely informed by his studies of photography.