Thomas Eakins

The Swimming Hole, 1884-1885, 27.6” x 36.6” (70.2 x 93 cm) Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

I live about twenty miles from this museum and since it is too freaking hot this time of year to worry about writing and research I give you this painting to cool you off. People often think these are children in this painting, but they are grown men, Eakins and his students enjoying a day of leisure and relaxation.

When I was a youngster, people went swimming at a municipal facility or to the local swimming hole which might be a river where it pooled, or a lake, or a reservoir. At these latter spots, as Loudon Wainwright III says I might be “…informal, at the former I wore my suit, I wore my swimming suit.” It was common, it was free and it was fun.

Eakins was a great student of photography and the moving form. Many of his paintings are known to arise from motion photography studies, and some are believed to have their genesis as images projected on a screen. This one did not come from such a study, but Eakins cannot fully escape his own technique. The sense of motion in the picture corresponds to the position of the bodies on the rock; one can almost fill in the action of the man rising then standing then plunging in followed by his leisurely breast stroke return.

In high school in Mississippi I would go with my friends to “Bully’s Hole” where a creek made a nice deep pool . You followed a dirt road across acres of farmland into eventual woods. A one-lane bridge stepped delicately above the pool and we would throw watermelons into the water from the bridge to cool them down, then jump in after them. We had other swimming spots, some on the Pearl River which was a much larger waterway. I had an old Datsun 510 sedan and the whole trunk could be filled with ice for beer and soft drinks. (It had a drain hole on the bottom, no worries.) Underage and dangerous we drank beer and swam with the snakes and turtles and did not die. Every now and then we’d hear of someone we knew who did die from such intemperate living, but inside we knew it couldn’t happen to us. Hell, you can die at Sears, so stop worrying and start living. That was our attitude and everyone would disapprove today, just as they should, the stupid wankers.

They tell us, too, that people screw up our pristine wilderness this way. But I don’t think that all the picnickers and hikers and stupid high-schoolers put together have ever done the damage to a single river that the average paper mill does. Or whatever mill or industry you want to name. And every day in every state we close more natural swimming holes to the public because someone in an office decides they are too dangerous. Sometimes they are too dangerous; sometimes they are too polluted. But sometimes they are just fine, yet the law says no-no, hipster.

You could, of course, go to a municipal pool, but in most big cities they’ve been shut down for the greater part of the last decade or so. No money for services, you see.

And it is too freaking hot to worry about writing and research, so here’s a bunch of guys going skinny dipping. You can still do this yourself, but you have to try really, really hard. Quality of life, baby.  If you can’t find you a clean, free swimming hole and some open-minded friends all is not lost. Remember that summer’s here and the time is right for dancin’ in the street.  But you might want to get that dancin’ in pretty soon, before somebody decides to break that up as well.

Quality of life, baby.

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3 Responses to Thomas Eakins

  1. Patti Kuche says:

    Would love to know who these people are who think the muscle-packed pecs on the above belong to children!
    We have a stream at the bottom of our garden, the water is always freeezing, but it is the best feeling.
    Keep cool and enjoy your summer. Quality of life, baby – has such a good ring to it!

    • foxpudding says:

      I think for some folks the only version of this painting they’d ever seen was a thumbnail in some book. Combine that lack of detail with the near-automatic association of such Tom Sawyerish activity with young boys and that’s how the misunderstanding arises. I seem to recall that when the Carter acquired this painting not all that many years ago a certain segment of their membership were scandalized that a picture of naked boys would enjoy such prominence. Enjoy your stream.

  2. Pingback: Edward Hopper IV | The Automat

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