More often than not, an art museum is designed to inspire quiet contemplation, encouraging visitors to stand before a painting and reflect on a work’s gravity and significance. In these somewhat contradictory private-moments-in-public-settings, many elevate these meditations to a more personal level, relating to the artwork within their own frameworks of experience and aesthetic taste. For these individuals, The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt In A Single Scull) serves almost as a mirror, reflecting back a portrait of a man engaged in a similar state of introspection. At its heart, the charm of the painting is the very mood it evokes, one that is tranquil, still, even solemn. Its dimensions are not grandiose (roughly 2.5 by 4 feet), and neither is its atmosphere; this is a calm, placid painting.
The scene’s air of quietude could not be more at odds with its true subject matter, as it was meant to commemorate an athlete’s impressive victory in a physically taxing amateur rower’s race. The artist, Thomas Eakins, chose to portray the local hero not in the height of physical exertion, but instead in an anti-dramatic moment of rest during a late afternoon practice session. A Philadelphia native, Eakins completed The Champion Single Sculls upon return to his hometown after studying abroad in Paris, Madrid, and Seville. Blending the influences of his French tutors, Jean-Léon Gérôme and Léon Bonnat, as well as the work of the Spanish Baroque artist, Diego Velázquez, Eakins developed a unique style that was extremely labor-intensive and aspired to a high degree of truth to nature.
The Champion Single Sculls is ultimately a snapshot of Eakins, his environment, and his times. Utilizing the Philadelphia-area Schuylkill River as his backdrop (a landmark he would indirectly visit again in his 1877 portrait of William Rush), Eakins is domesticating an exotic genre, that of Orientalist river scenes by artists such as Gérôme and Frederick Arthur Bridgman. As for the painting’s subject, Max Schmitt was a personal friend of Eakins’, and the artist included his own self-portrait as a rower in the composition’s middle ground.
The theme of rowing plays into Eakins’ own love of sports and his tendency toward masculine themes, as well as the contemporary interest in the moral virtues and health benefits of outdoor recreational activities. In an era in which American printmakers were just beginning to take up the rowing craze and memorialize victorious single scullers as gentlemen and regional heroes, Eakins produced nineteen such rowing images.
The Champion Single Sculls debuted to mixed reviews, with one critic noting the “scattered effect” of “dealing so boldly and broadly with the commonplace in nature.” Nevertheless, it marked Eakins’ first major success by demonstrating his remarkable technical skill. It also exhibits the artist’s quirky sense of humor: instead of inscribing his signature in the painting’s corner, Eakins subtly included his name and the date on the boat he is shown rowing in the distance.
Essay by Meg Floryan