Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly;
Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome.
She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank,
She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window.
Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.
Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.
Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather,
The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.
The beards of the young men glisten’d with wet, it ran from their long hair,
Little streams pass’d all over their bodies.
An unseen hand also pass’d over their bodies,
It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.
The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun,
they do not ask who seizes fast to them,
They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,
They do not think whom they souse with spray.
–Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, sec 11 in Leaves of Grass bk ii (1855)
In 1887, Renoir painted the “Large Bathers,” and in 1885 Eakins painted the “Swimming Hole.” There is a good deal connecting these paintings. Both present swimmers in full nudity, testing the prudery of the day (though in a context that was acceptable on the margins). Both have a frank eroticism which could easily have provoked scandal. But then there are also important differences, and among them the fact that Eakins painted men and Renoir women. There is also a sort of national sense of aesthetics. Renoir’s work is undeniably French, and Eakins’s is a masterwork of the American realist school. But Eakins work is more interesting to me. It’s carefully composed but it hopes to be a glimpse of an everyday outing to a favorite swimming hole. It’s drawn, like much of Eakins’s painting, from photographic masters.
It’s popular today to talk about Eakins and his work (and this one more than others) as homoerotic. That may well be. But not necessarily. It follows an obsession that Eakins had with the human body and its movement throughout his life; nearly all of Eakins works are in some way a study of the body, and his most famous works, the two clinic paintings, are studies of studies of the human body. He aspires to show it gracefully and naturally. And he also aims to provoke. He detests the prudishness of the Victorian age; its obsession with tightly fitting and uncomfortable clothing and its sense of shame over the human body. “Eakins was a deep student of life, and with a great love he studied humanity frankly,” said his friend Robert Henri. “He was not afraid of what his study revealed to him.” His entire life was marked by controversy surrounding this point, and students who worked with him noted his preference for nudity—he posed for them and they posed for him. In this painting he presents himself in the right foreground in an almost voyeuristic pose.
Eakins’s ideas about the human body find an interesting parallel in the poetry of Walt Whitman, and indeed, they may have been acquired from Whitman, at least to a degree. This attachment to Whitman survives from the records of Eakins’s students—they called themselves “the Whitmans.” Eakins admired Walt Whitman tremendously. He painted Whitman’s portrait and developed a rapport with the poet, and Whitman appreciated Eakins extraordinary vision–calling on him to speak at a testimonial dinner and then remembering that Eakins did his speaking through a medium other than words. Eakins was particularly taken by the Song of Myself. The painting “The Swimming Hole” seems unmistakably inspired by the passage quoted above from it, and Eakins himself, referring to it as one of “his Whitmans,” would support this reading. It’s a remarkable example of a poem realized in oil and canvas.
This article was originally published in Harper’s Magazine and written by Scott Horton. I was inspired to use this poem because it was mentioned in the book I am currently reading, Skylar M Cates’ The Only Guy. There is a scene where one man observes another swimming in the lake and watches for a minute while he contemplates joining him. It’s a beautiful scene and the character begins to quote this poem as he looks on at the other man. I can’t wait to review The Only Guy for my readers.