To the Editors:
I have read Louis Torres's article on Thomas Eakins (August 2003; Prefatory Note), which I thought full of intelligent observations. Apart from a few professional or academic quibbles, I found it agreeable throughout--except for his troubles with the homoerotic or homosocial aspects of Eakins's famous canvas, The Swimming Hole [now called Swimming]. This painting of 1883, in the Fort Worth Art Center Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, has in recent years become a focus of the controversy about the sexual inclinations of the painter. I think there is no doubt that the painting was meant to be homoerotic.
The setup--a man crossing a stream towards a bevy of nudes--is an old one. In Titian's Diana and Actaeon (1559, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), for example, Actaeon, during a hunt, breaks into the company of the goddess Diana and her bathing virgin companions, thereby violating the sanctity of a sacred community. This is a very serious theme, and for Titian, perhaps a Counter-Reformation theme, to wit, "Don't investigate or question the mysteries of religion." It gets watered down in the next century to an allegory of lust versus chastity in several works by Rubens [e. g., Diana and Her Nymphs Surprised by the Fauns] and others wherein lustful satyrs violate the space and chastity of bathing or sleeping nymphs. The satyrs--half-man, half-beast--represent a surrender to our animal nature.
The sexual meaning of this event was surely still alive in the late nineteenth century. It is the background to Bouguereau's Nymphs and Satyr [more] (1873, Clark Institute, Williamstown) where several nymphs are ganging up on a satyr, pushing and pulling him back into the stream. Paul Cézanne in his Les Grandes Baigneuses (1895-1905, Philadelphia Museum of Art), presents a large group of posturing bathers framed by a triangle of trees. In the center of the composition, in the distance across a stream, a nude boy stands with his dog. The boy looks across the water at the lounging women. Although the boy and the dog are unfinished, one can see that his right hand is in his crotch, as were often the hands of the earlier satyrs. Cézanne depicts both a masturbation fantasy and personal guilt. But in his almost contemporary Swimming Hole, Thomas Eakins, swims placidly across the water towards the bathers, seemingly without guilt or fear. And like Actaeon, and Cézanne's alter-ego, he is also accompanied by his dog, not a ferocious hunting mastiff but the benign Harry.
Such thematic matters were still discussed by the artists who studied in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts in the nineteenth century. Jean-Léon Gérôme, Eakins's master at the school, painted a series of mythological scenes in the late 1890s; some are in modern settings, and these include a Diana and Actaeon (1895, private collection). In Gérôme's version, the mythological theme is almost disguised by its realistic, 19th century setting: a hunting party in red hunting livery follows a stag over a hill to a pond where several bathing nudes in the water look up in alarm while others on the shore grab their clothes and run for cover. Gérôme's version was painted some thirteen years after The Swimming Hole. However, Gérôme often sketched his narrative pictures and talked about them, long before he painted them; and Eakins in Philadelphia kept up with Gérôme's activities. At any rate, the theme was still alive in the late nineteenth century, and even its allegorical content of lust versus chastity seems to have survived, as in Cézanne's painting.
Eakins, painting his version, probably thought he not only had an excuse to present a bevy of academic nudes, but also to make a great, private joke and a cryptic confession. He might be swimming in the buff, but he surely wears a smile on his face.
Gerald Ackerman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Pomona College. He is, most recently, co-editor of the Charles Bargue - J. L. Gérôme Drawing Course (2003).
[Note: The image of Gérôme's Diana and Actaeon cited above was kindly provided by Professor Ackerman.]
Louis Torres replies:
Any differences I may have with Gerald Ackerman, for whom I have the utmost respect, are happily restricted to the narrow issue of whether or not there is an element of homoeroticism in Thomas Eakins's Swimming. I welcome this opportunity for further reflection on this controversial work.
In arguing that the painting was intended to be a homoerotic confession, Professsor Ackerman depends entirely on drawing an analogy between it and works that depict a group of nude females whose space (or virginity) is violated by one or more male figures. Informative and interesting though his discussion of this long tradition is, it does not in my view shed any light on the intent or meaning of Swimming or, therefore, on Eakins's sexual proclivities. There are just too many differences between it and the other paintings--not to mention technical and biographical evidence--that, taken together, mitigate against a homoerotic interpretation.
The most obvious difference between Eakins's painting and those Professor Ackerman cites is that the latter are decidedly heterosexual in their erotic content. Nothing in Eakins's background or personality suggests that he would have been inclined to break so dramatically with that tradition in order to make a "great private joke." More important, in stark contrast to the central male figures in those paintings, the figure of Eakins (seen swimming toward the others) cannot properly be viewed as an intruder, as one who violates the space or the sanctity of the others. For one thing, he swims "placidly" (to borrow Professor Ackerman's term) toward to the rocky outcrop from which he and his fellow swimmers dive (or jump, or wade) into the lake, swim out, and swim back, and upon which they relax. As Eakins nears the end of the cycle, the diving figure to the right begins it anew. Also telling is the fact that two of the men--the one standing in the water, the other seated on the outcrop--appear to be interacting with the dog, who swims slightly ahead of Eakins in their direction. They cannot be unaware of Eakins, and appear not at all perturbed, or affected in any manner, by his presence--nor he by theirs.
Any interpretation of Swimming must take into account what is known about how the painting was created. In stark contrast to the works by Titian, Rubens, Bouguereau, and Cézanne under comparison, neither the composition nor the details of this painting were imaginatively conceived. Eakins did not choose to depict himself swimming toward the others, for example. As indicated by incised transfer marks on the canvas (which are invisible to the naked eye), such details were merely copied (except for the diving figure at the right) from a photograph--now lost, though similar photographs [more] [more] [more] taken at the scene by Eakins or his students survive. (On the first of these photographs, see "Eakins Update: Shoddy Scholarship" in "Notes & Comments" for this issue. See also my article on Eakins for further details on his limited, and short-lived, use of photography as a tool in painting.)
For the homoerotic interpretation of Swimming offered by Professor Ackerman to merit credence there would have to be corroborating evidence in Eakins's correspondence or in other paintings, or in the testimony of those who knew him. As far as I know, there is none. Significantly, as I observe in my article, not one of the scholars writing in the catalogue of the recent Eakins retrospective--including Marc Simpson (on whom see more below)--refers to homosexuality as an element in the painter's life or work. If it were, I might add, that would not trouble me at all.
Regarding Cézanne's Great Bathers (which, regrettably, I have seen only in reproduction), Professor Ackerman's interpretation of the two indistinct figures on the far shore is far different from that of art historian Stephen May, who refers not to a "boy with his dog" standing across the stream from the women but to "two mysterious people," so crude is Cézanne's rendering, it seems. May also points to a figure (of undetermined gender) swimming in midstream, presumably toward the women--a detail not mentioned by Professor Ackerman. A brief description by the Philadelphia Museum of Art fails to even mention any of these details.
While preparing these remarks, I was reminded of a literary treatment of the subject under consideration that I have long admired--Walt Whitman's erotic verse 11 of "Song of Myself" in Leaves of Grass, a psychologically astute work whose first line reads: "Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore." The protagonist is a lonely young woman who, unseen, fantasizes while watching the youths from her window.
In an essay in the Eakins catalogue ("The 1880s"), Simpson notes that Whitman and Eakins became friends toward the end of Whitman's life. Eakins painted his portrait from life five years before the poet died in 1892. In Whitman's estimate, "'Of all the portraits of me made by artists I like Eakins's best: it is not perfect but it comes nearest to being me.'" Eakins subsequently photographed Whitman, and may have earlier used the poet as a model for one of his "naked series," in which men and women alike were photographed in seven different poses for teaching purposes (see my article on Eakins for links to other examples). To judge from Simpson's brief but touchingly insightful account, the friendship between the two men was based on mutual admiration and a shared sensibility. Whitman's homosexuality, which was often implicit in his work (though he denied it throughout his life) has been the subject of continuing scholarly and critical inquiry. It did not, it seems, enter into his relationship with Eakins. (For further information on the poet, see the Walt Whitman Archive.)
(Since I did not cite Whitman in my article on Eakins, I am glad to have had the opportunity to add this material.)