Naked and Exposed: A Historical, Psychosexual, and Comparative Analysis of Thomas Eakin’s Masterpiece The Swimming

Laurie Figliano

The male nude became strictly academic by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Thomas Eakins and a handful of his contemporaries attempted to re-incorporate this classical subject matter while remaining modern. An art piece typifying this attempt is Eakins’s The Swimming (fig. 1), painted and exhibited in 1885. Although it was rejected in its time, it has been embraced today as a masterpiece of male nudity. Eakins remained true to the classical styles as well as his own convictions and portrayed the male nude in a realistic and academic manner. An analysis of Eakins’s contemporary social influences, as well as a close understanding of the classical male nude leads to a more conforming rejection, in its pertinent and timely context, of The Swimming. The rejection lies predominantly in a nineteenth century homophobic society, as well as in an unfavorable comparison between the Venus and the penis, or, in other words, the abridgement of male authority. Eakins’s contemporarily improper subject matter can be interpreted as that of an Avant-Garde artist; his American life exemplified his innovative and progressive art style due to his many artistic defeats yet endless attempts.

Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins, born in Philadelphia in 1844, where he lived until his death at the age of seventy-two, had an artistically challenging life due to his modern tendencies and beliefs in the art world, as seen through his very realistic and often-time taboo subject matter. Always supported by his family, Eakins studied in public high schools, during which time he became very interested in both sciences and art, leading him to enroll at the Jefferson Medical College, recognized as the leading medical school in America [1]. He studied under Dr. Joseph Pancoast and followed the itinerary of a medical student while completing an arts degree [2]. Shortly after his predominantly medical studies and minimal practice in painting, Eakins enrolled at L’École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he was the second American accepted to study in the atelier of Jean-Léon Gérôme [3]. After six years of studying in France and traveling through Spain, Eakins finally returned to Philadelphia in 1870 and in 1873 he enrolled in more anatomy classes, again at the Jefferson Medical College. This time he studied under a renowned American surgeon, Dr. Samuel Gross. This class inspired his masterpiece, The Gross Clinic (1875). During the same period, Eakins also taught, pro bono, at the Philadelphia Sketch Club (1874-1876) and at the Pennsylvania Academy (1876-1879). In 1879, Eakins was promoted to Professor of Drawing and Painting at the Pennsylvania Academy and finally earned his own salary [4]. Being a teacher and artist who was held in high regards by his friends, family, pupils and public, Eakins had finally established his place in the art world.

Due to his great knowledge of anatomy, Eakins had evidently become a portrait painter and specialized in rendering the male nude. He believed that the human figure was, “a miracle of muscle, bone and blood” and also said that, “[a female nude] is the most beautiful thing there is [in] the world except a naked man” [5]. As an art and anatomy teacher, Eakins found it imperative to have fully-nude models of both male and female sexes—regardless of whether or not the classes were co-ed. This method was unprecedented and, in a co-ed anatomy lecture of February 1886, Eakins removed the loincloth from a male model [6]. The scandal caused an uprising among some students, many parents (most notably mothers), the Academy, and the media, causing the compulsory resignation of Eakins from his position [7]. Despite the strict rules and regulations that governed what was acceptable as artwork, Eakins continued to paint overly realistic, un-idealized, erotic, and confrontational male nudes. The rejection of his great works, like The Gross Clinic, for reasons such as the confrontational subject matter of “medical science and its war against disease and death,” as well as the enigma of the piece in general, led the artist to be quite hostile towards the Academy [8]. This, as well as his strong and contemporary opinions of art and the freedom of expression, led Eakins to become the Courbet of America, the badger of the academy, and a leader in The New Movement (The American Avant-Garde).

Edward Horner Coates, chairman of the Pennsylvania Academy and Eakins’s employer, commissioned The Swimming, which was completed in 1885, a year before the artist’s resignation. Coates had privately mentioned to Eakins that if his painting was a success when presented at the annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy, he would include it in the Academy’s permanent collection [9]. Eakins embraced this opportunity with great determination, knowing that his chances to be a part of the permanent collection were much higher since his piece was already assured a place in the annual exhibition [10]. To Eakins’s great dismay, his canvas was rejected and Coates informed Eakins that he would have to produce a new painting with greater classical and academic skills, which the artist chose never to complete [11]. Although criticism of The Swimming ranged from the colors being dull to the movement being photographic and unrealistic, the true public distaste of the art was, as in the case of The Gross Clinic, its enigma and confusion. This illegibility was due to the subjects being male nudes drawn in an anatomically and classically accurate manner; however, they are depicted as bathers, a typically feminine portrayal, which was purported to undermine the empowerment of the male nude, creating a sense of homosexuality, a term and classification, which had a great impact on the nineteenth century. Living in a homophobic and patriarchal society, any of Eakins’s contemporaries could have and most likely did tell him that his work would be rejected. Eakins’s response to any such failures, including The Swimming’s, was short and simple: “I believe I have the courage of my convictions” [12].

A canon for an ideal male was created by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The actual rules were set forward in a treaty, The Canon, written and completed by Polykleitos, with a prototype of a statue using Achilles as the subject. The male nude was represented mainly through heroes, young athletes, submissive youth and mythological or religious subject matter, examples being Polykleitos’s Achilles, Praxiteles’s Hermes and the Infant Dionysos, and Myron’s Discus Thrower (Diskobolos). The legendary and prominent male nude of the Renaissance era, Michelangelo’s David also appropriates the canon. The Classical era defined the “universal man as the universal human,” which was precisely what Eakins was attempting to stray from [13]. Also, the romanticized, ideal male was, from Eakins’s point of view, highly unrealistic and, due to his anatomical correctness in art, he wanted to paint the realistic male, as Eakins’s believed it to have an undeniable beauty on its own. Eakins argued, “to idealize—one must understand what he is idealizing, otherwise his idealization—I don’t like the word—becomes distortion and distortion is ugliness” [14]. Moreover, he stated that depicting a male or female in their ‘natural skin’ was much more effective and less likely to be considered ‘mutilation’ than depicting a classically accurate setting [15]. While the artist was striving to simulate reality, several of his contemporary critics accused The Swimming of being a failure because Eakins’s perception of movement was unrealistic and overanalyzed, while others thought the nudes appeared “abruptly transplanted from the studio into nature” [16]. Furthermore, it has been said that The Swimming recalls “the classical tradition of antiquity and the Renaissance, which has collided head on with the scientific naturalism of the nineteenth century” [17]. Eakins’s in-depth knowledge of the anatomy, which was said to be higher than many certified surgeons, led him to paint the ideal form, muscularity, and stance of a naked male naturally, though perhaps too overtly. Rather than depicting the athletic nude, he introduced the natural nude. The men’s natural look does not owe itself to a drooping buttocks or rounded tummy, unlike many other depictions of the male nude in the nineteenth century, such as Gustave Caillebotte’s Man at Bath (1884). Instead, Eakins portrayed all five bathers naturally by painting them as toned rather than as overworked or as having abnormally large muscles. They are accentuated through a lighting effect as seen on the back of the male lowering himself into the water, the reclining male’s chest, the seated man’s right arm, and the standing nude’s legs, buttocks, back and arms. Rather than muscles depicting ideologies of a “heroic, virile and dominating man,” they appear healthy and achievable [18]. Eakins has said, “an artist dissects simply to increase his knowledge of how beautiful objects are put together” and then, perhaps, to imitate them [19]. He did this quite masterfully, which is largely why his work was illegible to the general public, for while he conformed to the canons of the human anatomy, he did not conform to the classical ideologies of heroism and athleticism. Furthermore, Eakins’s choice of location, sport, and company creates an overly realistic and feminized aura, which was unnecessarily confrontational in the eyes of his Victorian contemporaries.

It was in the nineteenth century that the term homosexual was established. This is not to say that homosexuality was nonexistent before this period. In fact, it was highly acceptable in the Greco-Roman ages and was often recognized in artists, patrons, and art such as through representations of St. Sebastian, Bacchus, Ganymede and Hyacinthus [20]. However, the terminology is very modern. Rather than the vocabulary historically used to describe a gay man—primarily inversion, sodomy, or pederasty — homosexuality created a shift in meaning from an act to a characterization. Michel Foucault accurately states that “the sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” [21]. Shortly after the implementation of the word homosexual into nineteenth century linguistics, the word heterosexual ensued, thus distinguishing a gay person and a straight person, a perverse and irregular person and a normal and prevalent person.

Eakins, though not publicly homosexual, was, most likely, homoerotic. However, many of his contemporaries thought otherwise [22]. He understood, like most gay artists of the time, that comfort with his own sexuality could only lead to greater hostility towards himself and his work. While he may have kept his own sexuality discreet, productions of artwork, such as The Swimming, spoke otherwise. When painting a nude, it was understood that the predominant viewer was male and that the subject matter should conform to his gaze. Pierre Bourdieu calls this technique charismatic ideology, a way of stating that the value of a work of art lies not only in the artist but also in the viewer. Aware of the academy’s predominantly male viewers and of the unsettling nature of male nudity in his time, Eakins decided to produce a twenty-seven by thirty-six inch-large canvas, depicting not one male nude, but six male nudes bathing together.

Homosociality is a term used by many authors to describe the social relationships between men [23]. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick further expands the concept of homosociality to homosocial desire [24]. This term delineates the homosexual desires in the word homosociality. In the context of The Swimming, the subject matter is homosocial and, furthermore, Eakins creates homosocial desires by subtly incorporating effects such as the older man swimming towards the younger men and the “feminized masculinity” of the figures.

Among other techniques, Eakins alludes to homosexuality through the symbolism of touch. The act of touching a person is often considered to be very erotic and sensual [25]. Although there is no direct contact between any of the men, the third man from the left who is in a sitting position is reaching forward as though he is about to grab the standing figure in front of him. Furthermore, the older male who is swimming towards the men in the far right corner of the canvas seems to have two implications; firstly, being older than the five other men and accompanied by a dog, the swimmer substitutes the male, animalistic gaze, unable to control his desires, similarly to the way a dog cannot help but show his happiness. Secondly, the swimmer appears to be joining the men in a rather sensual style, making his way slowly toward the figures—obviously not originally with them. His arrival is apparent due to his exclusion in the nude pyramid created by the five young men, a style often depicted by female bathers, which will be discussed further on in this essay. The older swimmer is most likely a self-portrait of Eakins, which can be assumed because of the similarities between the swimmer and the artist’s self-portraits. It is also Eakins’ signature act to subtly paint himself into the scene [26]. This portrayal insinuates the artist’s gaze as a homosexual man, an artist, a teacher and a photographer [27]. The representation of Eakins in a homosocial male gathering was depicted in a time of such narrow public interpretations, which might explain why his work was only embraced in the twentieth century.

Feminized masculinity is seen in every one of the men’s poses, as well as in the landscape scene. The five younger men are formulated into a pyramid beginning with the reclining nude to the left, who is staring at the sitting nude reaching towards the standing man. The latter is watching his companion dive diagonally into the water, and both the dock and the final nude stabilize the base of the pyramid. The close-knit symmetry alludes to the men’s feminine gathering and their homosociality. Furthermore, each man has a feminine style to his pose. Beginning again with the outstretched figure, he demonstrates the everlasting image of the reclining Venus. The sitting nude seems to be reaching out for someone to help him up, while the standing man, though in the most classical of poses, a seemingly contrapposto stance, has his arms on his hips alluding to his femininity. The diving figure has a knee slightly bent, and the male at the bottom of the pyramid seems almost nervous to let himself drop into the water, like a young child afraid of getting wet.

The representation of male nudes in a landscape scene is also very symbolic due to the history of the landscape setting. Many French painters in the nineteenth century, such as Courbet, Renoir, and Cézanne, depicted the female nude in a landscape in order to create a relationship between femininity and the earth, an embodiment of “the creative powers of nature” [28]. The feminization of masculinity both diminishes and dissipates the domination, power, and importance perceived to stem from depictions of the classical male nude.

Eakins was ahead of his time by depicting the feminized male nude. The nineteenth century, though evolving rapidly, was still a predominantly patriarchal society. The social context of male nudity was already under strict rule and the feminization of a man was culturally unacceptable. Abigail Solomon-Godeau explains the reasoning behind this social prejudice: “The image of the body should be understood as itself a historical matrix, marked and molded in a crucible of social, cultural and psychosexual circumstances” [29]. Aside from the abridgement of male authority through a feminized masculinity, a social division was also evident in the hierarchy of society. The muscular yet natural build of the nudes in The Swimming can also be interpreted as the bodies of labor workers, and the lighting effect which accentuates the muscles also creates a shadowing which resembles dirt. The representation of a lower-class worker can be construed as diminishing the importance of the classical male nude. In order to degrade male authority, Eakins makes no reference to the outside world. The only two aspects of the piece that may insinuate a world influenced by “man” is the stone dock, which appears to be very old, and the dog, which represents compliance and superior domination [30]. Animals are often depicted in female nude paintings, for it is said that they “construct ideal nature: canines could be taught, trained and manipulated, like children and women” [31]. Aside from including a dog in the scene and insinuating these men’s compliant nature, the canine is also performing the same task as the six men, further diminishing their masculinity and authority [32].

The inappropriate nature of male bathers can be put into juxtaposition with the acceptability of female bathers. The primary reason for this contradiction is the erotic nature of a bather and the male viewer being the “ideal spectator” [33]. The true basis for the rejection of the canvas was not publicly stated, but was, nonetheless, obvious. The approval of one nude and the rejection of the other is exemplary of the homophobic nature of the nineteenth century. Les Grandes Baigneuses, painted by Renoir in 1918, was widely accepted, yet the techniques used were very similar to the techniques employed by Eakins, the important difference being that the subjects were female rather than male. Having painted the piece indoors rather than in front of a landscape creates a sense of artificiality both in the movement of nature and the women, yet this was justified as being part of Renoir’s charming style. Furthermore, Renoir attempted to interlace classical styles with contemporary styles, and he succeeded both personally and publicly. As Guy Jennings argues, “The composition is based on classical subject matter, but the flattened perspective and expressive brushstrokes both demonstrate Renoir’s unabating search for new pictorial possibilities” [34]. The representation of a female nude, though often an erotic subject for the male viewer, can also be interpreted as a classical representation, “for female fertility in analogously lush landscapes” was considered to be less imposing and confrontational [35]. Many nineteenth century female nudes, such as Manet’s Olympia, cry out to the male viewer and accuse him of admiring and buying her services, which is precisely where the confrontational aura is rooted. Renoir’s piece, on the other hand, is less confrontational due to his inclusion of several small details such as wedding rings, no direct eye contact with the viewer, and a bourgeois setting. Similarly, Eakins attempted to censor his piece by having his subjects make no eye contact or direct relation with the viewer.

Moreover, his figures have their backs to the audience in order to avoid the issue of frontal nudity [36]. However, due to their sex, they can only be represented through an “allegory or a moralizing message,” which Eakins does not do, causing him to confront his viewers with the naked man rather than the nude male [37].

The analysis of two sets of terms, naked versus nude and penis versus phallus, is quite relevant in The Swimming. John Berger defines and differentiates the terms naked and nude, explaining that to be naked is to be completely exposed as an individual, not just a sex. It is being free from a ‘disguise’ and caught in a moment of total naturalism [38]. Nudity, on the other hand, is being ‘naked yet not exposed’ [39]. A nude is posing and adheres to classical ideology, “condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form a dress” [40]. In Eakins’s painting, due to the social setting and lack of masculinity in the figures, the men are naked, bare and exposed. While attempting to avoid scandal by omitting frontal and confronting figures, Eakins nevertheless causes a scandal by depicting nakedness rather than nudity.

Eakins employs both appropriate and inappropriate collisions in style, which are responsible for the illegibility of his work. The confusion can also be noted through his depiction of the penis, or lack thereof. The classical depiction of modest male genitals became part of the canon from the fifth century onwards [41]. The penis is, as Solomon-Godeau expresses, an ‘anatomical reality’. It has one purpose: to impregnate a woman, continuing the cycle of life. When depicted in a larger form, the penis implies a certain animalistic purpose rather than a male-dominated ideology. In this case, Eakins’s choice to omit the penis from his painting both conforms to the classical dislike of the penis and to his attempt at portraying reality and not male domination. However, there is a large distinction between the penis and the phallus. The phallus is incredibly predominant in classical art. Solomon-Godeau explains that the phallus is a symbolic representation of male authority rather than an anatomical allusion to the cycle of life. Solomon-Godeau states, “The power of patriarchy is so much in excess of its anatomical representative that the penis fails to represent its symbolic weight” [42]. Thus, in many artistic depictions, the diminished size of the penis is replaced with evidently phallic symbols, such as clubs and swords [43]. However, in the case of Eakins, the penis is absent from his painting, further diminishing male authority and publicly announcing Eakins’s opinion that the phallus has no great meaning or authority over society. Eakins represents the beauty of the male in his natural and exposed skin and not his dominant classical masculinity.

The academic, classical male nude was the preferred style to use when depicting a naked man in the nineteenth century. Artists’ works contemporary to Eakins’s time, such as Matisse’s Nude (1890) and Cézanne’s, Seven Bathers (1890), displayed the male nude as a subject yet depicted him highly unrealistically through the use of bright colors, unidentifiable forms and hazed reality, styles typical to Impressionism. Eakins had no intention of confusing or confronting his audience but rather, tried to depict the beauty of a natural human being, which he found predominantly in the male body. He wanted “to denude man of his false sophistication and bring him back to a more natural state” [44]. Eakins was ahead of his time due to his comfort with the homosocial scene and his perpetual conviction to create reality in art, notions that classify him as a “New Movement” artist. Unfortunately, his talent was criticized during his lifetime for his untraditional comfort with homosexuality and his modern perceptions concerning the male’s role in society. Thomas Eakins, unlike his contemporaries, remained true to both classical styles, and to his own convictions, portraying the male nude in a realistic and academic manner.


1. Lloyd Goodrich, Thomas Eakins (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 13.
2. Ibid.
3. John Esten, Thomas Eakins: The Absolute Male (New York: Universe Publications, 2002), p. 13.
4. Goodrich, p. 173.
5. Esten, p. 18.
6. William Innes Homer, Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art (New York: Abbeville Press, 1992) 173.
7. Edward Lucie-Smith, “Life Class,” Ed. Stephen Boyd, Life Class: The Academic Male Nude, 1820-1920 (London: GMP Publishers Ltd., 1989), p. 10.
8. Goodrich, p. 123.
9. Kathleen A. Foster, Eakins and the Academy (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1997), p. 100.
10. Ibid.
11. Kathleen A. Foster, “The Making and Meaning of Swimming,” Eds. Doreen Bolder and Sarah Cash,Thomas Eakins and the Swimming Picture (Vermont: The Stinehour Press, 1996), p. 16.
12. Ibid., p. 27.
13. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Male Trouble: A Crisis in Representation (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1997), p. 22.
14. Esten, p. 14.
15. Ibid, p. 18.
16. Homer, p. 116.
17. Ibid.
18. Solomon-Godeau, p. 26.
19. Foster (1997), p. 101.
20. Solomon-Godeau, p. 26.
21. Ibid., p. 27.
22. Marc Simpson, “Swimming Through Time: An Introduction,” Eds. Doreen Bolder and Sarah Cash, Thomas Eakins and the Swimming Picture (Vermont: The Stinehour Press, 1996), p. 7.
23. Anthea Callen, “Doubles and Desires: Anatomies of Masculinity in the Later Nineteenth Century,” Art History 03’ (November 2003), p. 672.
24. Ibid.
25. Alan Krell, Fearful Desires: “‘Embodiments’ in late 19thCentury French Painting,” Ed. Anthony Bond, Body (Melbourne: Bookman Pty Ltd., 1997), p. 122.
26. Elizabeth Johns, “ Swimming: Thomas Eakins, the Twenty-ninth Bather,” Eds. Doreen Bolder and Sarah Cash, Thomas Eakins and the Swimming Picture (Vermont: The Stinehour Press, 1996), p. 66.
27. Ibid.
28. Anthony Bond, Ed, Body (Melbourne: Bookman Pty Ltd, 1997), p. 28.
29. Krell, p. 122.
30. Bond, p. 28.
31. Krell, p. 123.
32. Ibid., p. 122.
33. Marcia Pointon, Naked Authority: The Body in Western Painting, 1830-1908 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 14.
34. Guy Jennings, Renoir: The History and Techniques of the Great Masters (New Jersey: Book Sales Inc., 1997), p. 59.
35. Pointon, p. 94.
36. Homer, p. 116.
37. Ibid.
38. Pointon, p. 15.
39. Ibid.
40. Ibid.
41. Solomon-Godeau, p. 178.
42. Ibid.
43. Ibid.
44. Margaret Walters, The Nude Male; A New Perspective (Sussex: Paddington Press, Ltd., 1978), p. 205.