Overview

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 Schuykill 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.

Inscription

Marks and Labels

null

Provenance

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.

Exhibition History

1917
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.
1930
Thomas Eakins, Babcock Art Galleries, New York, 1930-1931, no. 3, repro., as Ready to Start the Race (The Biglen Brothers).
1936
An Exhibition of American Genre Paintings, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 1936, no. 31, as The Biglen Brothers Ready to Start the Race.
1941
Painting Today and Yesterday in the United States, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1941, no. 44, as Biglen Brothers Ready to Start.
1945
Thomas Eakins Centennial Exhibition, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 1945, no. 42, as The Biglen Brothers Ready to Start the Race.
1948
Sport in Art, Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, 1948, no. 10, as The Biglen Brothers Racing.
1961
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.
1968
An Exhibition Honoring the XIX Olympiad, Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona, 1968, no. 29, repro.
1970
Thomas Eakins Retrospective Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1970, no. 14.
1976
American Marine Painting, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; The Mariners Museum, Newport News, 1976, no. 40, repro.
1984
The Waters of America: 19th Century American Paintings of Rivers, Streams, Lakes, and Waterfalls, New Orleans Museum of Art, 1984, no. 46, repro.
1996
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).
2010
Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 2010, no catalogue.

Bibliography

1930
Art News 29 (20 December 1930): repro. 68.
1930
Goodrich, Lloyd. "Thomas Eakins, Realist." Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin 25 (March 1930): 18, no. 19.
1933
Goodrich, Lloyd. Thomas Eakins: His Life and Work. New York, 1933: no. 61, 165.
1956
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1956: 56, repro.
1959
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.
1962
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Treasures from the National Gallery of Art, New York, 1962: 146, color repro.
1963
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 289, repro.
1966
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.
1967
Schendler, Sylvan. Eakins. Boston, 1967: 37, repro. 38.
1970
American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 52, repro.
1973
Williams, Hermann Warner. Mirror to the American Past: A Survey of American Genre Painting, 1750-1900. Greenwich, Connecticut, 1973: 224.
1974
Hendricks, Gordon. The Life and Work of Thomas Eakins. New York, 1974: 71, 325, fig. 58.
1977
Rosenzweig, Phyllis D. The Thomas Eakins Collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Washington, D.C., 1977: repro. 52.
1980
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 148, repro.
1980
Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: 16, 144, no. 38, color repro.
1981
Williams 1981, 152, repro.
1982
Goodrich, Lloyd. Thomas Eakins. 2 vols. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982: 1:97, 117, color fig. 42.
1982
Wilmerding, John. Bellows: The Boxing Pictures. Washington, D.C., 1982: 18-19, repro. 18.
1983
Johns, Elizabeth. Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life. Princeton, 1983: 42, note 51, fig. 29.
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 550, no. 836, color repro.
1988
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.
1992
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 165, repro.
1992
Homer, William Innes. Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art. New York, 1992: 129, color repro. 132.
1996
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.
1997
Gebhardt, Volker. Kunstgeschichte Malerei, 1997, no.177, repro.
1998
Gilbert, Rita. Living with Art, 1998, no. 92, repro.
2004
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 316-317, no. 256, color repro.

Technical Summary

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.

Related Works

Related Resources

  • Event Type
    Event Name
    March 1–June 1
    Mon, Tues, and Wed at 1:00
    March 5, 2012 at 2:00
    March 7, 2012 at 4:00
    East Building, Auditorium
    Name of docent
    image:
    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum
    60 minutes
    Registration for this event begins on April 1, 2012 at noon.
    Download the program notes (100k)
  • Self-Guided Tour
    Italian Collection
    image:
    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum