“…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 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
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.”
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.