"A boat," wrote American realist painter Thomas Eakins 1844- 1916, "is the hardest thing I know of to put in perspective."
The painstaking precision with which the artist undertook this challenge is revealed in the preliminary studies that Eakins prepared for his paintings of rowers and their craft. So detailed are his sketches for his 1872 work, "The Pair-Oared Shell," for example, that scholars have determined the boat depicted is 36 feet long and moving at a 67 degree angle away from the viewer. The shadow line of the bridge pier across the bow of the boat also indicates that it is 7:20 p.m. in early June or July.
Eakins' images of oarsmen on the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania -- both preliminary and finished works -- have been brought together in the exhibit "Thomas Eakins: The Rowing Pictures," which opens on Friday, Oct. 11, at the Yale University Art Gallery. The show, which includes 23 paintings and drawings from major public and private collections, has been organized by Helen A. Cooper, the Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture.
Rowing was the most popular spectator sport in the United States when Eakins returned from his artistic studies abroad, determined to make his mark as a painter of contemporary American life.
"Rowing provided an apt metaphor for all that Eakins believed in: self-discipline, self-knowledge, and complete harmony between mind and body," says Ms. Cooper. "Just as sculling is dependent upon precision, practice and unwavering dedication, so the paintings were based on scrupulous observation and intense preparation."
An enthusiastic amateur rower himself, Eakins also brought to this theme a thorough scientific knowledge of the human figure, having studied anatomy at a medical school as part of his artistic training.
Among the images featured in the Yale Art Gallery exhibit is "The Champion Single Sculls," which shows Eakins' boyhood friend, Max Schmitt, after winning a three-mile race for the single-scull championship of the Schuylkill Navy Regatta. The work, which launched Eakins' career in 1871, is now part of the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is the artist's most-reproduced work.
Eakins' favorite subjects for his rowing pictures were the celebrated professional oarsmen John and Barney Biglin of New York, who are pictured in the aforementioned "The Pair-Oared Shell," as well as "The Biglin Brothers Racing" and "The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake." John Biglin -- who was described as the best oarsman in America and "a physical specimen ... about as near perfect as can be found" -- was portrayed by Eakins in several pictures, all titled "John Biglin in a Single Scull."
Also on display are "The Schreiber Brothers," Eakin's picture of good friends who were recreational rowers, and "Oarsmen on the Schuylkill," the last of the artist's rowing series.
"By 1875 Eakins was moving to new projects," explains Ms. Cooper, "most notably 'The Gross Clinic.' This extraordinary work celebrates a different kind of human achievement -- that of a great surgeon -- but it too combines the best of head and hand. It owes much to the lesson of the rowers."
Before coming to Yale, "Thomas Eakins: The Rowing Pictures" was on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It will remain on view at the Yale Art Gallery through Jan. 14 and then move to the Cleveland Museum of Art. The exhibit was made possible by The Henry Luce Founation, Inc., with additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Further support for the exhibit came from the Virginia and Leonard Marx Publication Fund, The Andrew Mellon Fund, Mr. and Mrs. Holcombe T. Green Jr., and Jan and Frederick Mayer.
"We are indebted to our lenders and deeply grateful for the generous financial support that ensured the high quality of the project," says Susan Vogel, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale Art Gallery. "I would like to offer special thanks to Meryl Streep, for helping u, understand the rowing experience by lending her own rowing shell for display in the exhibition."
The Yale University Art Gallery, located at the corner of Chapel and York streets, is open to the public free of charge 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, and 2-5 p.m. Sunday. The number for general information is 432-0600. A museum entrance for persons using wheelchairs is located at 201 York St.; call 432-0601 for further information about access.