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 pair-oared shell 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.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I, pages 157-162, which is available as a free PDF at https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/american-paintings-19th-century-part-1.pdf