Masterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Impressionism and Modern Art
"I know of no prettier problem in perspective than to draw a yacht sailing," wrote Thomas Eakins in a perspective manual composed in the 1880s for his students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.1 An enthusiastic sailor, Eakins embraced local sporting subjects and the challenge of convincingly depicting boats during the 1870s, following his return to Philadelphia from Paris. This large painterly study was worked with a palette knife and is the artist's second attempt at a composition involving a local boat called a ducker, which was used on the Delaware River just south of the city. Distinctive to the region, duckers were ideal boats for hunting birds because they were nimble and the sail could be removed when hunting. Here, two men sail to their hunting grounds, one of them steering and looking below the sail while the other gazes out at us. Eakins painted a similar subject in 1874 in a vertical format, which he sent to his painting teacher Jean-Léon Gérôme in Paris for advice. Gérôme felt that the earlier composition was too regular, and in this one the boat is a larger, more dramatic presence in an almost monochromatic painting that is loosely sketched and nearly all water. Jennifer A. Thompson, from Masterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Impressionism and Modern Art (2007), p. 190.
1) A Drawing Manual by Thomas Eakins, ed. Kathleen A. Foster (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2005), p. 74.
Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections
When Thomas Eakins returned to Philadelphia in 1870 after four years of study in Paris, he immediately began to apply the rigorous training he had received at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to local subjects in a series of paintings of his male friends engaged in sports that the artist himself enjoyed, such as rowing, sailing, and hunting. In works such as Sailing Eakins developed his skills by applying the fundamentals of academic art that he had learned: the solid, anatomically correct representation of the human figure and the meticulous construction of a scene using perspective drawings, which here capture the exact tilt of the boat. At this early point in his career, Eakins was still experimenting with his technique, and Sailing is unusual in that it was painted largely with a palette knife. He may have used this atypically broad treatment in response to criticism of another version of the same subject from Jean-Léon Gérôme, his teacher in Paris. Darrel Sewell, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p.285.