In the late 1860s and 1870s rowing was a popular sport in America, practiced by both men and women. Eakins himself was an avid rower, and he painted the subject several times. This particular version most likely had its origins in a race held on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia on May 20, 1872 between professional oarsmen John and Bernard (Barney) Biglin in one scull and Harry Coulter and Lewis Cavitt (not shown) in the other boat. Attended by thousands of spectators, the five-mile race began with Coulter and Cavitt taking the lead, but the Biglin brothers pulled ahead and won handily, thanks to their steady stroke. The white sleeveless shirts and blue silk head kerchiefs worn by John and Barney Biglin are factually correct, but the race is shown in the afternoon light whereas the start was delayed by rain until about 6:30 pm.
Composed in the studio, the painting would have been preceded by a number of preparatory drawings as well as a precise perspective rendering. Striving for accuracy, Eakins went to great lengths to capture the reflections of light off the water. The same care was applied to the representation of the muscular bodies of the Biglin brothers. Athletic events such as rowing or boxing provided Eakins with the opportunity to observe nearly nude models. It was, in fact, his insistence on using nude models in the classroom that years later got him fired from a teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Although perhaps not at first apparent, the finely calibrated composition and certain telling details enhance the narrative impact of a moment frozen in time. In the immediate foreground is a sliver of the competitors’ racing shell, and Barney Biglin, in the bow seat, glances over his shoulder at it, gauging his position. His brother John is completely focused and poised to begin his next stroke. Perfectly attuned to one another, the brothers’ bodies are identical in posture. The angles of their torsos are repeated in the diagonal clouds and tops of the trees, while the shells and shoreline divide the space into stable horizontal bands.
The artist [1844-1916]; by inheritance 1916 to his wife, Susan Macdowell Eakins [Mrs. Thomas Eakins, 1851-1938], Philadelphia; sold 1933 through (E. & A. Milch, Inc., New York) to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; consigned 18 February 1950 to (M. Knoedler & Co., New York); sold 19 April 1950 to Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, New York; bequest 1953 to NGA.
- Memorial Exhibition of the Works of the Late Thomas Eakins, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1917-1918, no. 1, as Biglen Brothers Ready to Start Race.
- Thomas Eakins, Babcock Art Galleries, New York, 1930-1931, no. 3, repro., as Ready to Start the Race (The Biglen Brothers).
- An Exhibition of American Genre Paintings, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 1936, no. 31, as The Biglen Brothers Ready to Start the Race.
- Painting Today and Yesterday in the United States, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1941, no. 44, as Biglen Brothers Ready to Start.
- Thomas Eakins Centennial Exhibition, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 1945, no. 42, as The Biglen Brothers Ready to Start the Race.
- Sport in Art, Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, 1948, no. 10, as The Biglen Brothers Racing.
- Thomas Eakins: A Retrospective Exhibition, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; The Art Institute of Chicago; Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1961-1962, no. 12, repro.
- An Exhibition Honoring the XIX Olympiad, Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona, 1968, no. 29, repro.
- Thomas Eakins Retrospective Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1970, no. 14.
- American Marine Painting, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; The Mariners Museum, Newport News, 1976, no. 40, repro.
- The Waters of America: 19th Century American Paintings of Rivers, Streams, Lakes, and Waterfalls, New Orleans Museum of Art, 1984, no. 46, repro.
- Thomas Eakins: The Rowing Pictures, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; Cleveland Museum of Art, 1996-1997, unnumbered catalogue, fig. 22, fig. 23 (detail).
- Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 2010, no catalogue.
- Art News 29 (20 December 1930): repro. 68.
- Goodrich, Lloyd. "Thomas Eakins, Realist." Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin 25 (March 1930): 18, no. 19.
- Goodrich, Lloyd. Thomas Eakins: His Life and Work. New York, 1933: no. 61, 165.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1956: 56, repro.
- Bouton, Margaret. American Painting in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1959 (Booklet Number One in Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.): 7, 28, color repro.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Treasures from the National Gallery of Art, New York, 1962: 146, color repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 289, repro.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 2:484, color repro.
- Schendler, Sylvan. Eakins. Boston, 1967: 37, repro. 38.
- American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 52, repro.
- Williams, Hermann Warner. Mirror to the American Past: A Survey of American Genre Painting, 1750-1900. Greenwich, Connecticut, 1973: 224.
- Hendricks, Gordon. The Life and Work of Thomas Eakins. New York, 1974: 71, 325, fig. 58.
- Rosenzweig, Phyllis D. The Thomas Eakins Collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Washington, D.C., 1977: repro. 52.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 148, repro.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: 16, 144, no. 38, color repro.
- Williams 1981, 152, repro.
- Goodrich, Lloyd. Thomas Eakins. 2 vols. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982: 1:97, 117, color fig. 42.
- Wilmerding, John. Bellows: The Boxing Pictures. Washington, D.C., 1982: 18-19, repro. 18.
- Johns, Elizabeth. Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life. Princeton, 1983: 42, note 51, fig. 29.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 550, no. 836, color repro.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 132, no. 43, color repro.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 165, repro.
- Homer, William Innes. Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art. New York, 1992: 129, color repro. 132.
- Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 157-162, color repro.
- Gebhardt, Volker. Kunstgeschichte Malerei, 1997, no.177, repro.
- Gilbert, Rita. Living with Art. 5th ed. New York, 1998: fig. 92.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 316-317, no. 256, color repro.
The support is a fine, plain-weave fabric that has been lined. A note in the NGA curatorial files states that before 1930 the initials T.E. were visible on the back of the canvas, which suggests that the present lining was added at about that date. The ground is a smooth white layer over which a slick charcoal gray tone was applied. The gray tone is visible in the water, where the artist scraped through the paint, perhaps intentionally, creating a shimmering effect. The paint is relatively fluid, applied with considerable variation in texture, and as a rule with one area of paint brought up to but not overlapping another. Treatment of the painting from 1981 to 1983 revealed considerable abrasion in the boat and in the water, where poor adhesion between the gray layer and the water had caused paint losses, and in the sky, where a gray layer applied over the blue had been unevenly removed in an earlier restoration, perhaps in an attempt to brighten the sky.