More than 150 years ago, a student at Central High School would walk six blocks from his home at 1729 Mount Vernon St. to the Schuylkill and row. It’s what his friends did. It’s what his teachers did. Indeed, rowing was the biggest spectator sport in the United States in the era before baseball, football, and basketball.
That student was Thomas Eakins, who later painted what he knew best: his beloved Schuylkill and his rowing friends.
This weekend (Oct. 28-29), as Philadelphia hosts one of the biggest rowing events in the country, it is only fitting that the Thomas Eakins Head of the Schuylkill Regatta is named for him.
Eakins graduated from Central in 1861, just after the newly formed Fairmount Park ordered the rowing clubs’ makeshift shacks torn down to make way for the first stone houses of Boathouse Row. He had received a rigorous education at Central, the city’s first public high school, which aimed to give middle-class kids the same opportunities as those at private schools like Penn Charter and Episcopal Academy. His years of mathematics, art, and science grounded him for his meticulous studies of athletes in motion and his monumental medical paintings: The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic.
At that time, Central students rowed as did those at the private schools. Back then, crew was called a “manly sport,” one that developed character even while putting extraordinary demands on the body.
Pictured next to Eakins in the portrait of his graduating class of 12 students is his good friend Max Schmitt. Eight years later, while in Paris studying art, he followed Schmitt’s victories on the Schuylkill in letters home. Returning in 1870, he watched the champion rower win an October race, inspiring his painting of Schmitt sitting calmly in his single scull, with Eakins himself in the background, rowing furiously — perhaps because he struggled as a rower, or perhaps, some say, because he was struggling with his art. Unable to sell The Champion Single Sculls, Eakins gave it to Schmitt, where it hung in his home until long after Eakins’ death, when it was acquired by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Eakins went on to produce more than 20 rowing drawings and paintings, many of which have become his most admired works. His Oarsmen on the Schuylkill depicts rowers at the Pennsylvania Barge Club, where it is believed he rowed. He also had many connections to the Undine Barge Club. In 1862, he lost out to Undine member and fellow Central High alum Joseph Boggs Beale in his first bid for a job teaching art. Undine rower Frederick Gutekunst photographed Eakins in a portrait now at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
In his first portrait of someone outside of his family, Eakins painted Benjamin Howard Rand, his chemistry professor at Central who also taught him anatomy at Jefferson Medical College. Rand had been president of the Undine Barge Club while Eakins was at Central. Though prominently displayed at the 1876 Centennial, the portrait, which shows a darkly moody Rand at his desk, did not sell and Eakins donated it to Jefferson, which sold it in 2007 for about $20 million to the Crystal Bridges Museum, in Arkansas.
In recognition of the close ties of Eakins’ life and art to Boathouse Row, the Head of the Schuylkill renamed the race for him in 1975. Winners initially received a solid silver medal depicting his image, designed by sculptor Leonard Baskin. Today, regatta winners receive medals with a rendition of Eakins’ Perspective Drawing for the Pair-Oared Shell, which is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
If Philadelphia’s appreciation for Eakins came belatedly, his love of the city was apparent even as a 22-year-old. In an 1866 letter to his friend Emily Sartain, who later became president of what is now the Moore College of Art, he wrote:
“I envy you your drive along the Wissahickon among those beautiful hills with which are connected some of my most pleasant reminiscences. … You say you had a slight sensation somewhat resembling pride in your native city. I feel like scolding you for such a weak avowal of your real sentiments. You should hear me tell the Frenchmen about Philadelphia. I feel 6 ft & 6 inches high whenever I only say I am an American, but seriously speaking, Emily, Philadelphia is certainly a city to be proud of.”
Dotty Brown, a former Inquirer editor, is author of Boathouse Row: Waves of Change in the Birthplace of American Rowing. Contact her at http://boathouserowthebook.com. For information about the Thomas Eakins Head of the Schuylkill, go to HOSR.org.