Originally Posted by Drewdown
The Nude Man's Best Friend: Eakins's Dog Harry at the Swimming Hole
The American nineteenth and early twentieth century painter Thomas Eakins was a pioneering figure in American art. As part of his academic background he was extremely fond of painting from the nude model, and this became part of his personal ethos. The culmination of this ideal was the painting The Swimming Hole, painted in 1883. This painting was meant to serve as a manifesto for Eakins' ideals. The painting is a character study that Eakins puts forward, an examination of the male nude and a re-imagining of the classic nude in a new American setting. One element of the painting, however, that has received little to no attention in the painting is the inclusion of Eakins' dog. Though little has been said about it, the appearance of Eakins' dog Harry fits in with this painting and the painter's life in a complicated way. Though the inclusion of the dog is deliberate, it is unknown what exactly its purpose was. It is unclear whether it was to disprove the possible detracting views of the painting, or to show The Swimming Hole not as the display of a homosocial or homoerotic community as some propose, but simply as Eakins displaying his artistic manifesto that was based on anatomy and the use of the male nude.
When Eakins set out to begin the painting it is likely that he would have been aware of the controversy the painting would raise. Eakins had already encountered criticism with his paintings The Gross Clinic and The Crucifixion. In both works the nudity was justified by the subject matter, and consequently with the swimming hole the nudity would not be justified. Therefore Eakins' reasons for including his dog Harry could be numerous, ranging from a way of showing the nudity as harmless childlike fun, or perhaps as a way of asserting Eakins' dominance and presence.
Eakins was fascinated with the nude figure. He possessed a horde of nude photographs of himself, his students and others.1 Eakins insisted on nude models for figure drawing, a conviction that got him fired from the Pennsylvania Academy in 1886.2 He posed nude frequently, as such there are entire series of photographs devoted to his nude portraits. He justified his own nudity by stating that he would not ask his students to do anything that he would not do himself.3 Yet there was another element to his tendency towards nudism, as he was known to have given nude photographs of himself to friends.4 Eakins also had a penchant for undressing for acquaintances, a habit that bordered on exhibitionism. Eakins was known to have once presented his nude body to a model of Samuel Murray, proclaiming " I don't know if you ever saw a naked man before; I thought you might like to see one."5 Not only was Eakins reported to have gone nude in front of models, but also students. It was reported that Eakins disrobed in front of his female student Amelia van Buren, whose portrait he painted in 1891.
Whether or not it was considered normal by the standards of his time, Eakins possessed a strange fascination with nudity that was dually rooted in a desire to show himself nude and see other people nude. Burns explains this as a paraphilia that psychoanalysts refer to as a "looking-showing" modality. To Burns this was Eakins' expression of deep seeded emotional or physical injuries and his exhibitionism was his attempt at repairing his self image.6 Interestingly enough, this also falls into line with Berger's analysis of Eakins, yet the two opinions draw from different traits of Eakins. Burns sees Eakins' issues stemming from his own insecurities and his fears that he will develop dementia like his mother did, while Berger sees Eakins' problems stemming from his insecurities and nineteenth century social pressures. Both Burns and Berger draw similar conclusions about Eakins' fragile mental state: Eakins was insecure and slightly neurotic this manifested in his paintings and photographs. Whether or not this is true or not is debatable as it is impossible to truly psychoanalyze a historical figure. What we can take away as fact is that Eakins had a definitive fascination with the nude figure, a fascination that culminated in the Swimming Hole, his most ambitious nude work.
The Swimming Hole was commissioned by Edward Hornor Coates, the Pennsylvania Academy's chairman of the Committee on Instruction, yet the painting ended up being rejected by its intended patron upon completion[Fig. 1].7 The painting went through a series of title changes. During Eakins' lifetime it was named Swimming, after his death it was renamed the Old Swimming Hole by his widow, and later it assumed the title the Swimming Hole. The painting depicts a group of Eakins' students in various poses situated around a pier. The swimming hole itself was not a naturally occurring one and was created in Eakins' lifetime when a land owner flooded his fields. The pier on which the painting is focused was the foundation for an old mill. This modern creation of this man made lake certainly runs in contradiction to the title of the work assigned by Eakins' widow Susan Macdowell. It is obvious then that the title change to the Old Swimming Hole was one to evoke a nostalgic sentiment. It is very possible that this creation of nostalgia was an attempt to remove the controversy from the piece and situate the nudity depicted in an appropriate context. It is also important to note that the nudity in the piece does not have to have any special connotations. Although it was the Victorian point of view that nudity was associated with sexuality, Eakins most likely just viewed it just as a natural ideal state, inline with the views of the classical nude, for which he had great admiration.
The painting then consists of a triangular composition focused around the pier where Eakins' nude students are situated. At the left one man lies recumbent in the classical Dying Gaul pose. Below him another figure clings to the pier, halfway in the water his hand and gaze is down as he tests the waters. To the right is another figure that sits on the pier. This figure also recalls a classical pose as he leans back resting on one arm, while the other is outstretched. The next figure is the only one standing on the pier. His back is to the viewer, with his hands placed on his hips he strikes a contrapposto pose. The next figure is seen in mid dive, just as his hands and head enter the water and with his feet just leaving the pier. Just at the bottom right of the composition Eakins' included a portrait of himself. He is seen with his back to the viewer, his head and shoulders just visible above the surface of the water. The final figure in the painting is one that has been greatly overlooked in most other accounts of the painting. Just at the end of the pier Eakins chose to include his dog Harry swimming in the water. The dog is depicted paddling towards the shore, yet interestingly it would seem that the gaze of both the recumbent men are directed down at the dog. It is even possible that the seated man on the right with an outstretched arm is actively engaging with the dog.
There have been numerous analyses of the Swimming Hole in the past, with conclusions that seem to illustrate Eakins and the painting as being homoerotic, homosocial, insecure, mentally unstable, sexually depraved, and just fascinated with male nudity. One such analysis comes from Martin Berger, who asserts that Eakins portrays a homosocial community and that his involvement in the painting boosted his own low self confidence. Berger hypothesizes that Eakins suffered from a deflated self image of his manliness and that surrounding himself with nude men engaging in physical activity was a way of reaffirming his manliness. Berger also presents an interesting hypothesis that the painting symbolizes the advancement of the students style. Eakins, the master, being fully submerged in the water symbolized his detachment from the pier of traditional American art, while the other students are depicted at varying degree's of acceptance of his philosophy.8 Another interpretation put forward by Allen Ellenzweig, is that of the painting as a representation of Eakins' homoerotic tendencies.9
Studies of the painting usually only glance over the inclusion of Harry in the painting, yet it would seem that Harry is a very deliberate element in the work. In Eakins' photographs from which the painting was taken we can see the same group of students shown in varying poses from the final form [Fig. 2, Fig. 3] . Yet, in these photographs that documented an actual event, Harry is strikingly absent. Thus it would be safe to assume that Eakins includes Harry in the finished painting for a very deliberate reason. The deliberate inclusion of Harry is also made abundantly clear by the existence of predatory sketches Eakins did of Harry for the painting. Working in the academic tradition, Eakins prepared both a preliminary painting for the composition [Fig. 4] and for Harry himself [Fig. 5]. In the preparatory work for Harry one can see Eakins practicing the form of Harry's head, as it would appear above the water in the final painting. These preparatory works point towards a premeditated concept and a purposeful depiction of every element, including Harry.
The next inclusion of Harry in a work by Eakins came about a year after Swimming with Eakins' The Artist's Wife and His Setter Dog [Fig. 6]. Though the painting is of less significance then the Swimming Hole for our purposes, the painting still reveals another side of Harry. The painting depicts Eakins' wife, Susan Macdowell seated in the study. In the painting Macdowell looks up from her studying of Japanese prints and she stares directly at the viewer with her palm open and her head slightly cocked to the side. Macdowell is pictured in a bright blue dress that contrasts greatly with the drab browns and yellows of the room and draws the eyes directly to the figure. It has been observed that Eakins purposefully depicts Macdowell as looking weary beyond years and also dressed in garb many years out of fashion. The purposes of this portrayal are debatable at best, if not unknown, yet the painting is relevant for its inclusion of Harry. In the painting Harry is depicted lying on a red carpet, that he nearly blends into. He appears calm and relaxed with his gaze steadily fixed on the viewer. Harry's lack of reaction to the intrusion of the viewer lends to the idea that this viewpoint is that of Eakins himself. There is also an important point to be made about the title of the work. Eakins is very specific to include "His Setter Dog" in the title. Thus the dog takes on the representative role of its master in the painting. This is, in fact, a similarity that the painting has in common with Swimming, as it is possible that in that painting as well Harry represents Eakins' presence as being closer to the students then he actually depicts himself. Based on this assumption taken from the two paintings, one could theorize that Harry served as a buffer or proxy for Eakins, who would rather withdraw from social situations.
Dogs have had a long history of representation in art, beginning with some of the earliest art forms. Though it is clear that man and dogs developed together, some work argue that the dog domesticated man as much as man domesticated the dog. The earliest signs of domestication go back to at least 12,000 BC.10 The dog, in life and as it is reflected in art, serves as a Rorschach test for the owner and painter, assuming whatever qualities were instilled in them, joyous, melancholy, innocent or naughty, rich or poor.11 While the depiction of dogs had a long history before Eakins, during his own time the issue of dogs began to undergo monumental changes as the concept of pure bred dogs really first began to emerge in the 19th century. This was accompanied by a great increase in the popularity of dog ownership. Throughout the 19th century owners began to apply intelligence and human emotions to dogs, and dog ownership continued to grow in popularity and fashion. Part of this was spurred on by Queen Victoria who was an avid dog lover and from the mid to late nineteenth century. Queen Victoria really helped to bring purebreds into fashion, as she owned over seventy pure bred dogs at a time.12 Dog painting also saw an increase in popularity with the enormous success of artists like Edwin Landseer, perhaps the most famous painter of dogs. Landseer became the authority on dog painting when he painted Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's dogs, for which he was later knighted.13 The popularity of dog painting grew so great that even Thomas Gainsborough often depicted the sitter's dog in portraits that he painted.14 Gainsborough's depictions have an obvious connection to Eakins' two works. Fitting into this new trend is evidence of Eakins' modernity that Berger would argue for.
As Burns explains Eakins had a genuine fondness for his animals, "He was sentimental about animals although he had no compunctions about dissecting them. When his dog, Harry, accidentally killed Bobby, a pet rabbit, Eakins, in a rage, 'ran out with tears streaming and gave Harry a whipping.' He was contradictory in every way."15 Despite the severe treatment of Harry that Burns illustrated Eakins was still very sentimental about his dog. In a letter home from a trip to Dakota in 1887 Eakins wrote, "Harry will soon see me again. Don't tell him about me till I am almost home."16 These two examples show Eakins as a multi faceted man who both sentimental and stern with his beloved dog Harry.
In keeping with Berger's ascribed ideas of modernity on Eakins, Harry is also a modern dog. Harry is an Irish setter, a breed that was not made official until 1886. He is easily identified as an Irish setter by his size, characteristics, and his coloring of white, red, and brown. Setters are also known to be excellent pets and companions, a trait that comes through in the two paintings. Since the setter was a modern dog it would seem fitting that Eakins would want to own one to keep up his projected image as a modern man. The setter is a scent hound used for hunting wild fowl and birds. Unlike sight hounds, that would chase down and kill their prey, the scent hound was made to locate and retrieve animals, mainly fowl, that the owner had shot. Having a hunting dog portrays Eakins as manly, far more so then a lapdog would have. As Burns and Berger assert this appearance of manliness was very important to Eakins. As Burns explains this,
Unfitness-both physical and mental-was for Eakins the cause of perennial unease; weakness in any form was anathema. Yet however much he sought control and masculine mastery, Eakins was not always or entirely master of himself, exhibiting in his behavior a pattern of striking inconsistencies. His anxiety about what he clearly perceived as the taint of femininity-that is, anything that struck him as weak, delicate, or pretty-was nearly phobic.17
Through this excerpt we can see why Eakins had to have a hunting dog to help promote this manly image. Harry, as a pet could serve another function for Eakins, however. As a pet Eakins could assert his dominance over Harry in a traditional role between a master and pet. This could have bolstered Eakins' self image, as Harry would have looked to him as a pack leader. Thus, keeping Harry as a dog could have had a tremendous impact on Eakins'
Eakins' depictions of his dog fit into a modern development and spurring on of dog painting, yet where Eakins diverged from the modern trends was in his depiction in The Swimming Hole. What made Eakins' painting different was the depiction of the dog with the nude male figure. At the time the two genres were not paired together, in fact, there are very few instances of paintings involving dogs and the male nude. To find examples of such work one has to turn back to classical works of art. One story in which we see the male nude with dogs is in the examples of depictions of Artemis and Actaeon [Fig. 7, Fig. 8]. The two works both tell the mythological story of Actaeon, who while out hunting with his dogs, stumbled upon Artemis bathing. As punishment Artemis then turned Actaeon into a deer and his own hunting dogs turned on him and attacked him. The two relief works both depict a similar scene, the nude figure of Actaeon flanked by attacking dogs. These two examples show that, while infrequent, there was a historical precedence for the portrayal of nude men with dogs, especially hunting dogs such as Eakins'. It is possible, however, that this genre disappeared after Greek and Roman times, as later works of the same subject show Actaeon fully clothed, such as the work from the Renaissance by Titian [Fig. 9]. The theme of the nude male with dogs adds to the many classical references already in the painting.
The Swimming Hole was a controversial painting. Its depictions of male nudity outside the explanation of a historic scene made the painting quite a taboo. It was Eakins' only, maybe for the aforementioned reasons, nude painting removed from either the studio or a historic background such as his crucifixion painting. As previously mentioned, Harry plays a role of great significance in the painting. What Harry means, however, is not definitively clear. One possibility is that when the nude is removed from the studio or the historical art depiction the dog then might become an important character in asserting the playfulness and naturalism of the nudity depicted. Harry, in this case, symbolizes a playful creature and draws up nostalgic images of swimming with dogs in childhood. It could be Eakins' way of deflecting any possible accusations or scandal and giving the painting a harmlessness to combat the taboo nature of the painting and putting the same sort of nostalgic spin on the painting that Susan Macdowell was going for when she renamed the painting The Old Swimming Hole. This idea of Harry symbolizing the innocence of youth could also been seen as a rebuke to Ellenzweig's questions of Eakins's sexual orientation. Instead of the Swimming event being a homoerotic event, as it might have from the photographs, the inclusion of Harry makes the nudity seem more a matter of naturalism instead of eroticism.
Looking at The Swimming Hole from a view centered on Harry brings up a great new wealth of symbolism that most art historians have failed to look at. What Harry definitively means is impossible to tell, but what one can say is that Eakins was very involved with and devoted to his pet. As mentioned, a person casts much of themselves in their dog, thus Harry can been seen as a reflection of Eakins. This portrays Eakins as a very modern and sporting figure. Yet despite the modernness of Harry, the scene's portrayal of nude men with a dog conjures up classical imagery. This adds to the classical imagery that has already been discussed in the painting, such as the choice of the male nude, the classical poses and the triangular construction, as if to represent a modern interpretation of a tympanum.
What Harry means in the Swimming Hole is really impossible to say. Yet the possibilities of Harry throws a wrench in the hypotheses of others, like Berger and the revisionist viewing by art historians. It is possible that Eakins foresaw these interpretations and that is why he chose to include Harry in the painting. Or it is possible that Harry represents Eakins presence in the Swimming Hole and The Artist's Wife. Regardless of what Harry's inclusion in the two paintings really symbolizes, it certainly brings a new perspective to the analysis of the works and a new way of looking at Eakins through his dog.