Editor's note: The following 1994 essay was published on April 1, 2004 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Doreen Bolger. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact Ms. Bolger (see biography following essay).


Thomas Eakins' The Swimming Hole

by Doreen Bolger and Claire M. Barry


Perhaps Thomas Eakins' most accomplished rendition of the nude figure, The Swimming Hole represents the artist and five other naked men, his students and friends, at the edge of a creek near Philadelphia. It was commissioned by Edward H. Coates, a Philadelphia businessman who was then Chairman of the Committee on Instruction at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Eakins taught for a decade. The painting was shown in the Academy's 1885 annual exhibition, but was soon returned to the artist by the patron, who exchanged it for a less controversial genre scene, The Pathetic Song (The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).

Within months, in 1886, Eakins was dismissed from the Academy, where his demands for the study of the nude offended Victorian propriety. The Swimming Hole, by its subject and provenance closely associated with this painful moment in Eakins' career, was exhibited only once more during his lifetime, in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1886. It remained in the painter's possession until his death thirty years later.

When the Amon Carter acquired The Swimming Hole in June 1990, it was a happy ending to a story that captured local and even national attention. The painting had come on the market earlier that year with some notoriety; its owner, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, proposed selling it and using the funds to establish an endowment for the purchase of contemporary art. The Amon Carter, which specializes in American art of Eakins' period, eventually was able to raise for its purchase ten million dollars from some five thousand foundations, corporations, and private individuals.

The Fort Worth community had first joined together to buy The Swimming Hole in 1925 (from the artist's widow, Susan, for $750.00). For years the popular picture hung in the public library as a part of the collection maintained by the Fort Worth Art Association, the Modern's institutional predecessor. There it became a symbol of the city's cultural aspirations. As Katie Sherrod, columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram put it in 1990: "The Eakins was the declaration that there were people in this still-young and brawling city who cared about culture and more -- about passing it on to other generations. It began with the tradition that nurtured philanthropists such as Amon Carter, Kay Kimbell, and Sid Richardson." The foundations that these local philanthropists founded still support Fort Worth's three art museums today.

The Swimming Hole long admired by scholars and collectors, was so familiar through frequent exhibition and publication that it seemed unlikely that much new information would be unearthed about the picture. However, the acquisition of the painting, its conservation, and its reframing allowed startling insights into the painting's genesis and interpretation.

The painting's well-known title, The Swimming Hole, was apparently first used in 1917, probably at Mrs. Eakins' suggestion. The artist called it Swimming in 1885 and The Swimmers in 1886, emphasizing not the place, but the action and the figures. The date 1883, long accepted as the date when Eakins began his work, proved to be the result of a conservator's misinterpretation and strengthening of the artist's actual inscription, 1885. Eakins' signature and date had been painted in a fugitive red lake pigment which then faded to illegibility. (The earlier date also appeared in an inscription and label added to the reverse of the canvas, which may have contributed to the confusion.)

The painting's original frame was rediscovered at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, then was presented to the Amon Carter and restored. Last, but not least, the painting's 1993 cleaning revealed that the dark tonality of the landscape, the golden glow enveloping the figures, and the seeming flatness of the paint surface resulted from multiple layers of varnish. These had darkened and obscured the picture's rich brushwork and sometimes brilliant palette.

Extensive research by the Museum's curators, conservators, and librarians preceded the recent treatment of the picture, but relatively little documentation of the painting's original appearance or restoration history survives. The Swimming Hole may have been reworked by Eakins himself, as the artist sometimes added glazes, and toned areas such as the sky to alter effects of light and atmosphere. These adjustments are not always easily distinguished from a conservator's later retouching. Unfortunately, there is no known photograph of The Swimming Hole documenting its appearance in the artist's lifetime.

Following Eakins' death, his wife Susan became the picture's caretaker until its sale, and The Swimming Hole may have been among the eight pictures she sent to a restorer for treatment, just before the artist's memorial exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1917. A black-and-white photograph shot at the Museum on October 3, 1917, shows traces of Eakins' original signature and date and his use of dark glazes in the background foliage, which had already developed severe drying cracks. Also present was a drip mark to the right of the standing figure, most likely from a caustic liquid splashed against the canvas.

After its acquisition by the Fort Worth Art Association in 1925, The Swimming Hole was lent repeatedly to exhibitions across the county. The picture was often damaged while traveling. It was restored in 1937 at Newhouse Galleries, New York, where it was relined, the disfiguring drip in the background foliage was painted out, and the signature and date were strengthened. In 1944 M. Knoedler & Co., New York, suggested that the picture already needed consolidation and relining, which was undertaken, but there is no written documentation of the work done then or three years later, in 1947, when Knoedler's treated the picture once again.

Sheldon Keck, the distinguished conservator at The Brooklyn Museum and a specialist in the treatment of American paintings performed two minor restorations, in 1954 and 1957, which are more thoroughly recorded; both photographs and treatment reports were completed. The painting continued to be lent with great regularity in the 1960s and 1970s, so that it required some conservation attention, but it was never comprehensively treated.

In all, before the current restoration, The Swimming Hole had received seven separate treatments during the fifty years following its acquisition by the Fort Worth Art Association, including at least two relinings and as many as four cleanings.

Claire M. Barry, Chief Conservator in the paintings conservation program jointly sponsored by the Amon Carter and the Kimbell Art Museum, treated The Swimming Hole beginning in June 1993. Utilizing ultraviolet light, the stereomicroscope, and early photographs of the painting to distinguish between the artist's original glazes and later areas of retouching, she gradually thinned down the many layers of varnish.

Then she closely examined the two small oil studies for The Swimming Hole, also in the collection of the Amon Carter Museum, in which the artist established the color and tone of the original composition. Eakins' delicate glazes were preserved, although they had suffered some damage in prior cleanings, but the retouches were removed. There were a few losses, primarily at the outer edges where the painting had been damaged by frame abrasion. These were retouched and a natural resin varnish was applied to the surface. This varnish revealed the painting's rich and varied tonality and bright palette.

While the restoration of The Swimming Hole was still in the planning stages, the Museum had begun to search for an appropriate period frame for the picture. The painting, in what appeared to be its original frame, had been recorded in views of the 1917 Eakins memorial exhibition held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and in an illustration in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ten years later. The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth located the missing frame in its storage and presented it to the Amon Carter in December 1992. The frame was intact, but was damaged from wear and tear and the application of metallic paint. It was restored in New York, where the paint was removed, damaged decorative elements repaired, and the surface regilded, matching a remaining area of the original yellow gilt. The high key of this gilding, at first surprisingly bright, now matches the tones of the freshly cleaned painting. Taken together, the restored painting and frame enable us to appreciate this major exhibition piece much as it would have been seen by viewers at the Pennsylvania Academy over one hundred years ago.

The material amassed as The Swimming Hole will serve as the basis for an exhibition the Amon Carter Museum has scheduled for travel in 1996. The painting will be accompanied by Eakins' oil sketches for the composition as well as photographs the artist took of his friends and students in preparation for his work on the picture. The exhibition will shed light on Eakins' working method and place The Swimming Hole in the context of the artist's Arcadian paintings. The Amon Carter Museum is at 3501 Camp Bowie Boulevard, Fort Worth, Texas, (817) 738-1933


About the author

In 1998, Doreen Bolger became the ninth Director of The Baltimore Museum of Art, which opened to the public in 1914 and attracts nearly 300,000 visitors each year. She oversees an artistic program that focuses on art of the modern era, from the 19th century to the present.

Bolger has led major collection reinstallation projects that create a dynamic and engaging visitor experience. The BMA's preeminent holding of post-Impressionist and modern art-the Cone Collection-reopened to the public in 2001 after an extensive renovation of the galleries, heralded by The Wall Street Journal as "the most illuminating installation of a museum's permanent collection in recent memory." In 2003 the BMA's galleries of European art were also dramatically reinstalled.

Under Bolger's direction, the BMA has continued to expand its collection with exciting acquisitions, adding some 2,000 works in the past five years. She has focused on strengthening the Museum's collection of works by African-American artists, both historic and contemporary, and increasing new works of art in a variety of media by artists working today.

Bolger has been at the helm of critically acclaimed exhibitions that highlight the Museum's diverse collection, including the groundbreaking exhibition Painted Prints: The Revelation of Color (2002), a significant contribution to the study of Old Master prints, as well as Work Ethic (2003), an examination of how the role of the artist and what is considered art has changed from the 1960s to the present.

Collaboration with other institutions in Baltimore has been a hallmark of Bolger's tenure at the BMA. Projects include The Triumph of French Painting (2000), a major traveling exhibition co-organized with the Walters Art Museum, and Joyce J. Scott Kickin' It with the Old Masters (2000), a major retrospective co-organized with the Maryland Institute College of Art.

She has made its collections more accessible through innovative educational programs for a range of audiences. Major exhibitions regularly include an interactive component that helps foster lifelong learning in the visual arts, such as a hands-on activity room and dance studio created for Degas and the Little Dancer (1999) and a popular computer-generated virtual tour of the Baltimore apartments that once housed the Cone Collection.

A specialist in 19th-century American art, Bolger began her career at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where she was a member of the curatorial staff in its American Wing for 15 years and rose to the position of Curator of American Painting and Sculpture. She also held the title of Manager of The Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art and was the sole author of a detailed catalogue of the American paintings collection. Bolger was Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, from 1989 to 1994, then became Director of the RISD Museum at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Other highlights of her curatorial career include the exhibitions: Thomas Eakins and "Swimming"; American Impressionism and Realism, The Painting of Modern Life: 1885-1915; and In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement.

Bolger publishes and curates in her field and has repeatedly served as a panelist for the NEA and NEH and field reviewer for IMLS. She serves on the board of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance and has chaired an assessment team for the Art Museum, Princeton University, curated an exhibition of women artists in Maryland for Government House, Annapolis, and served on the Visiting Committee at the Maryland Historical Society. She also lectures widely at colleges, community groups, and arts organizations, and is currently an adjunct professor at The Johns Hopkins University.

Bolger has received grants from the NEH and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. She was an Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art; and a Chester Dale Fellow at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

She graduated from Bucknell University in 1971 and earned a Masters degree in 1973 from the University of Delaware, Newark. In 1983, Bolger completed her doctorate at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York.

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