Friday, 4 February 2011

Bite 53: Thomas Eakins - Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, 1871

Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, 1871, oil on canvas, 82 x 118 cm
"There is so much beauty in reflections," Eakins observed, "that it is generally well worthwhile to try to get them right." 

Here, painting his childhood friend Max Schmitt in commemoration of a  successful championship, he certainly achieves that, portraying perfectly the Schuykill River in his native Philadelphia bathed in that specific late-afternoon sun when the world appears all the more tangible. 

This is American Realism at its best, with expert colour control and well-crafted composition. The result is an air of tranquility touched with melancholy; Schmitt looking back at the viewer before he continues on with his efforts, the red boat in the distance occupied by the artist himself. This may be a naturalistic work by a fiercely realist artist (Eakins was one of the first American artists to utilise the camera in painting), yet it none-the-less remains a deeply personal and moving work without resorting to over-sentimentality. 

"The sentiments," Eakins explains, "run beyond words. If a man makes a hot day he makes it like a hot day he once saw or is seeing; if a sweet face, a face he once saw or which he imagines from old memories or parts of memories and his knowledge, and he combines and combines..."

This exquisite combination is what makes great Realism - it is much more than a mere xerox.

In the collection (of over 2 million works) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.