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September 27, 1954
Thomas Eakins was both participant and trained observer
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September 27, 1954

The Great Realist

Thomas Eakins was both participant and trained observer

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In the last half of the 19th Century Americans began to look about them and to realize the greatness and beauty that destiny had conferred on them. The nation had come of age. It was united from ocean to ocean and the mixture of many foreign cultures had blended into one strongly our own. Among the artists of the period who felt the surge of national pride was Thomas Eakins, one of America's giants of sporting art, who devoted himself to painting everyday people and the activities of life about him. A Philadelphian, Eakins had a vigorous interest in outdoor life. He hunted the Cohansie marshes, fished and swam the Delaware, and rowed on the Schuylkill. Prom these pleasant pastimes came some of his best canvases. One of his favorite sports was hunting railbirds in the marshes and the scene above, Will Schuster and Blackman Going Shooting, painted in 1876, is of one of his friends on such a sortie. A rebel against Victorian sentimentalism, Eakins was a realist and he viewed his world as a trained observer (see following pages).

Max schmitt in a single shell is probably Eakins' most famous painting. Schmitt was his boyhood friend and together the two spent many hours skimming over the placid surface of the Schuylkill River. Here Schmitt, who attained local fame with his oars, rests easily in his delicate little racing shell, the Josie, at a point on the river just above the Girard Avenue Bridge in Philadelphia. Eakins used ingenuity in signing the painting while at the same time recording his participation in the popular sport. He painted himself at the oars of a single shell in the middle distance, going away in fine form. On the stern is marked "Eakins, 1871." Today this section of the river, little changed, is still studded with boathouses along the shore and any good day brings out the oarsmen. Given to Max Schmitt by Eakins, this painting is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Between rounds is one of several boxing scenes painted by Thomas Eakins. It was a sight as familiar to him as a rosin box is to a fighter. The boxer is Billy Smith; the second fanning him with a towel is Billy McCarney. Bending over the ropes is Elwood McCloskey, known as "The Old War Horse." These three were regulars in the old Arena at Broad and Cherry streets in Philadelphia where Eakins and his friends were faithful attendants. Clarence W. Cranmer, who is sitting at the table as timer in the painting above, was a local newspaperman and a close friend of the artist. In later years he recalled that he had accompanied Eakins to thousands of rounds of boxing before the artist, always a perfectionist, attempted his first prize-ring sketch.