Eakins, Thomas The Swimming Hole (1885)

The Independent's Great Art series


Also in this article:



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.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?