Editor's note: The following 1994 article was rekeyed and reprinted without illustrations on May 13, 2004 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Claire Barry. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author through http://www.kimbellart.org
Thomas Eakins' "The Swimming Hole"
by Claire M. Barry and Doreen Bolger
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.
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