Swimming Toward Paradise

“…There is always somebody, when we come together, and the edges of meeting are still sharp, who refuses to be submerged; whose identity therefore one wishes to make crouch beneath one’s own…”

 

The Waves

Virginia Woolf

 
 

779px-Eakin's_art_studens_bathing_3Eakin’s Art Studens Bathing in Dove Lake,Philadelphia, 1883

 
 

Landscape sketch

 
 

Final sketch

 
 

The Swimming Hole (also known as Swimming and The Old Swimming Hole).

 
 

The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun, they do not ask who seizes fast to them,

They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,

They do not think whom they souse with spray.
 

Excerpt from Song of Myself

Walt Whitman

 
 

Before starting to paint The Swimming Hole (1884-85), Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins took some photographs and made some studies, a very usual method for him. Eakins made the oil as a commission by Edward Hornor Coates, a Philadelphia businessman who chaired the Committee on Instruction at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Eakins taught, but at the end of the day, he rejected to acquire the painting. As luck would have it, this is maybe his most famous piece of art, an American Arcadia.
 
In Swimming, Eakins depicts six male nude figures on and near an outcropping of rock at the edge of a remote lake, four of them on the rocky ledge itself, reminiscent of figures on a Greek pediment. Eakins is indeed shown swimming toward the outcropping to join the others–or, as New York magazine critic Mark Stevens‘s fanciful musing would have it, “swimming toward paradise from the darker edge.”
 
Like Stevens, Sanford Schwartz, a professor of English at Penn State, makes much–too much– of the naked male bodies in Swimming, calling the painting “a love song to male beauty” in which Eakins conveys “an ardent heroizing desire yet with no trace of lasciviousness.” The painting, in his view, “presents a sense of physical adoration” in which “an older man [Eakins] is seen swimming toward the men on or near the rocks,” giving it a “sexual and narrative tension.” “Being appreciated, at a particular instant, by a singular older man, these beautiful young swimmers become individuals themselves,” he asserts. The painting, Schwartz continues, does not “necessarily reveal that Eakins . . . harbored homosexual longings he couldn’t otherwise express,” and, in any case, “the painter’s actual sexual orientation . . . isn’t the issue.”

 
 

Ancestor:
 

Scene d’Été / Les Baigneurs (Summer Scene /Bathers). Frédéric Bazille, 1869.

It is not unlikely that Eakins saw the painting at the Salon while studying in Paris, and would have been sympathetic to its depiction of male bathers in a modern setting.

 
 

Successor:
 

Forty-two Kids. George Bellows, 1907

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Mirror Stage Identity

Not to be Reproduced (La reproduction interdite), a portrait of Edward James by René Magritte, 1937

Note: The book on the mantel is a well-worn copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (written here in French as Les aventures d’Arthur Gordon Pym).

 
 

“Therefore I hate looking- glasses which show me my real face.
Alone, I often fall down into nothingness. I must push my foot stealthily lest I should fall off the edge of the world into nothingness…”

Virginia Woolf
The Waves

 
 

Dr. Heisenberg Magic Mirror, Duane Michals, 1998

 
 

“At any rate, the looking glass shame has lasted all my life, long after the tomboy phase was over. I cannot now powder my nose in public. Everything to do with dress- to be fitted, to come into a room wearing a new dress- still frightens me; at least it makes me feel shy, self-conscious, uncomfortable”

V.W. Diaries

 
 

(The source of that shame lied on the fact she was abused for her half-brother Gerald in front of a mirror)

 
 

“Let me add a dream; for it may refer to the incident of the looking-glass. I dreamt that I was looking in a glass when a horrible face –the face of an animal- suddenly showed over my shoulder. I cannot be sure if this was a dream, or if it happened. Was I looking in the glass one day when something in the background moved; and seemed to me alive? I cannot be sure. But I have always remembered the other face in the glass, whether it was a dream or a fact, and it frightened me.”

A Sketch of the Past
Virginia Woolf
(p. 69)

 
 

Bibliography:

The Unknown Virginia Woolf
Roger Poole