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
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?