John Wilmerding Collection previous next

Thomas Eakin's Drifting

Thomas Eakins (1844-1916),
Drifting, 1875, watercolor on paper, John Wilmerding Collection

Watercolors such as Drifting were not conceived as independent works or studies for paintings, but rather as works done after paintings. The artist may have been creating watercolor copies of his oils to take advantage of the new vogue for the medium. While they mirror the meticulous detail of the paintings, their luminescent quality is very different from the oils they often follow. The watercolors are suffused with light supplied by the white ground of the paper and feature subtle atmospheric effects--qualities that frequently eluded Thomas Eakins in his great subject paintings, whose dark tonalities troubled the artist and were often the target of contemporary criticism.

Drifting simply and directly captures the play of light across the water and on the sails of the boats. Eakins reduced the scene to a few basic elements: the shoreline; a tall, dark sail silhouetted against the sky with the hull of another boat positioned at an oblique angle behind it; and a small boat with a white sail in the right foreground. Although Drifting would not have required the complex calculations needed to depict the foreshortening of the racing shells seen in his well-known rowing images, the artist may have used perspective sketches to calibrate the wave patterns and the recession in space toward the horizon line. The extraordinary detail in this work may also owe something to Eakins’ experiments with photography. 

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