Eakins, Thomas The Swimming Hole (1885)

The Independent's Great Art series

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About the artist

The painted world is still: this is well known. But making that point, David Hockney once gave it a wise turn, saying that in pictures "things don't actually move. The figures are, and will always remain, exactly where the painter put them". Notice, he doesn't say (as you might expect) that the figures remain exactly where they are. No, they remain exactly where the painter put them.

This brings the stasis of the image up against the activity of the artist. The figures in a painting do not just materialise on the picture surface. Where they are is where they've been put. Like the laying of a table or setting of a stage, painting a picture involves numerous acts of placing and positioning.

Of course, to look at a painting in this way means that you imagine its figures as being somehow separate from the picture in which they appear. It's as if they pre-existed the scene they were assembled into – as if they could be picked up and moved about before being put in their final position.

That's not literally how paintings are made, but it's not so far off. In the preliminary studies for a picture, the same figure may be repositioned several times before arriving at its final pose and place. During the painting process, it may be moved around on the canvas itself. If the painting is from life, there is also a living model involved. Models really are separate bodies, who are put into positions by verbal instruction or direct physical manipulation. Painters may also use puppets and "lay-figures" for similar purposes. In all these ways, the painter puts the figure in its place.

And in some pictures, you're made to feel this. The "putness" of the figures is not just a fact, it's an effect. You feel that they are separate from the scene in which they appear. You feel that they've been physically put into the positions they occupy. The human figures in these pictures, though apparently free agents, seem like dolls, models, playthings – passive, manipulable.

The effect has something in common with pornography, with its helpless sex objects put through their positions and permutations (even though there may be no actual sex portrayed). A good example is the work of Balthus, whose figures often find themselves bound, held down and splayed by the firm geometrical composition of his pictures. But that's not the only way to do it.

Thomas Eakins' The Swimming Hole is a classic of American painting. It shows a scene of healthy, manly, outdoor activity: a group of young fellows having stripped off for a dip. It is based on the swimming excursions that were enjoyed by the artist and his students. Eakins himself appears in the water at bottom right – in signature position, so to speak.

The subject has often been seen as homoerotic – or unconsciously homoerotic, and therefore perhaps the more erotic, for being unconscious of it. And obviously we can all be knowing about the 19th century and its ideals (or delusions) of masculine comradeship.

But if there is something sexy in The Swimming Hole, it's not solely in its subject matter. It's in the feeling that these fine naked bodies are the picture's playthings. Though shown at exercise, these swimmers don't seem fully in command of themselves. They've been put – in their places, their poses, their actions.

This is partly because the figures, especially the three on the rock, seem separate, both from one another and from the picture. They don't look like a group that has assembled itself, more like a group that has been assembled – three disconnected bodies, put together, collage-wise.

There is also the way the figures bear themselves. They don't look like people doing something, more like people maintaining positions that have been imposed on them, into which they have been put. They look like models holding studio poses.

This is most evident in the middle figure of the three, the man half-kneeling with his hand raised. What's he doing? In the studio it would be clear: he is employing a standard trick for keeping an arm raised and flexed, holding on to a sling, to support the strain of the limb. But in the painting the sling is eliminated – leaving only a nude in an overtly artificial pose.

In their arrangement and in their poses, these three bodies show clear signs of being under external manipulation. (All three might actually be the same man, in different positions.) Though purportedly pursuing fresh air, fitness, freedom, the figures on the rock are laid out like mannequins in a shop window. They have strong young physiques, but they're doll-like. This alluring mixture of muscularity and passivity: did Eakins know what he was doing?

The artist

Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) was – until Pollock – the great American artist. Born in Philadelphia, he had studied Velazquez and Rembrandt in Europe, and pursued Realism with scientific rigour. He learnt from Muybridge's photographs of bodies in motion. A great believer in the living model, he lost his teaching job after allowing mixed life-classes to draw a male nude. His greatness was largely posthumous.

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