On Sam See’s “queer mythologies” and Thomas Eakins’s "Swimming."


IT’S FAIRLY OBVIOUS that Thomas Eakins’s well-known swimming picture, an image of six naked men in an outdoor setting, makes some claim for the natural value of uninhibited male homosociality and homoeroticism. There was a time when I would have said that because this is a fairly obvious fact about the painting, it is therefore one of the least interesting things about it. Sam See, I feel sure, would have disabused me of this error pretty thoroughly, not only because in 1885 (when Swimming was completed and first exhibited) such a claim on behalf of male same-sex eroticism would have been (and actually was) unsettling to many viewers. This claim, in fact, led Eakins’s patron, Edward Hornor Coates, who had commissioned the painting, to demand revisions to the image and then ultimately to reject it, and very likely contributed to Eakins’s subsequent dismissal — the very next year — from the faculty of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

See would have chided me, too, because such a reflexive attitude on my part was a relic of my own graduate training in the 1980s, when “nature” was a routinely derogated category in what was then becoming queer studies. Trying to think about this picture afresh, with See’s categories of “queer natures” and “queer mythologies” in mind, I’m led to examine some features of the painting — and of its setting, so-called Dove Lake in Lower Merion Township near Philadelphia — that complicate the picture’s discourse of nature and the erotic. And this fresh look at the painting may reveal something that helps to correct one critical mistake that has been made about it.


The critical mistake. In one of the most robust and brilliant discussions of the swimming painting, Whitney Davis argued that the painting treads a fine line between the conventions of a harmless genre, the innocent picture of youthful male camaraderie, and something more provocative — a daring and dangerous paean to homoerotic pleasure. Davis’s argument has a formalist dimension: three of the male figures (the man swimming in the lower right corner, who is Eakins himself; the red-headed young man who is standing hip-deep in the water; and the seated figure with raised arm who seems to be throwing something toward the dog who is swimming in between them all) form an innocent triad, engaged in harmless play for which the dog serves as a kind of alibi. The other three figures (the standing man in the center; the diving man at whom the standing man appears to be looking; and the leaning man on the far left) form a more overtly eroticized triad. These two triads are spatially distinct from one another — the innocent zone is in the foreground, nearer to the painting’s viewers, the dangerous zone farther back.

There is a great deal more to Davis’s argument (especially his analysis of the archive of Eakins’s Arcadian photographs and oil sketches, executed in the years before and in some cases as preparatory studies for Swimming; here Sam See’s “queer mythologies” would be apropos), but let’s accept its basic claims for the moment. What links the two zones, which are otherwise spatially segregated, Davis then argues, is the reflection of the diving figure on the surface of the water. This shape, he observes, actually joins the two zones — leading from where the diver’s head is just piercing the water’s surface directly toward Eakins’s own outstretched hand. In fact, Davis argues that Eakins’s hand appears to touch the part of the reflection that corresponds to the site of the diver’s penis. Davis calls Eakins out for placing this reflection in the wrong place, when it should (he argues) instead extend “in a curve running from [the diver’s] point of entry into the water to a point no closer to us than the forward edge of the pier.” Eakins, Davis says, put the reflection in the wrong place in order to allow his own depicted hand to appear to touch it and thereby join the two zones.

Now, this argument is ingenious, but it has one striking problem: the reflection on the surface of the water is actually in exactly the right place. The natural laws of optics determine that a reflection on the surface of a body of water will always appear to extend toward the viewer. Think of yourself walking along the beach at sunset: you may move along the shore but the reflection of the setting sun in the water will always be coming directly toward you. Or think of the reflection of a tall mountain on the other side of a lake: its inverted image in the surface of the water will be determined by your own viewing perspective. By having the reflection come directly toward the viewer of the painting — by having it extend, as Davis observes, “far forward toward the picture plane to a point almost touching Eakins’s outstretched hand in the water and continuing, reflected in a series of smaller ripples, to the very bottom of the canvas,” Eakins is not only true to nature, but he conscripts the viewer into the scene of homoerotic revelry: the reflection interpellates the viewer, positioning and implicating the viewer as if also present in the natural setting.

If we think even more about the way reflections really behave in nature, we will realize that the diver’s reflection, seen from the standpoint of the depicted swimming figure of Eakins, will appear to him to extend in his direction. Thus his outstretched arm will be, from his perspective, plunging straight ahead toward the reflection. In my view, Davis’s argument thus remains a strong one — Eakins is definitely reaching toward the diver’s reflection — even though it mistakes the correctly depicted reflection for a wrongly placed one.

Several other facts make nature, as it is depicted in Swimming, a somewhat complicated matter. Although most viewers of the painting are likely to think the men are enjoying a naturally existing body of water, Dove Lake is actually a reservoir: it was formed in 1873 by the damming of a stream known as Mill Creek. The stream was given this name because at one time it furnished the power that operated 20 or so mills — grain, paper, gunpowder, lumber, sheet metal, woolen fabric, and other goods were manufactured there until, by around 1850, most of them had become technologically outdated and uneconomical. The flood of 1893 brought the destruction of the remaining mills, and prosperous Philadelphians built elegant suburban dwellings on nearby properties. The rocky outcropping on which some of the figures in the painting are disposed is probably not a natural feature of the site — or a “pier,” as Davis and others have called it — but the ruined foundation of one of the mills, already largely reclaimed by nature when Eakins brought his students and friends there to pose. [1]

Visiting the reservoir in the months and years before his 1885 painting, Eakins and his students would have known of its industrial history and would have seen many remains of the defunct mills. This is all to say that the “nature” seen in the painting is itself in considerable part an artifice — a reservoir created by the construction of a dam — and the naked figures are themselves standing upon and disposed around a ruined industrial structure. The painting, for those in the know (as Eakins’s patron and many of the painting’s early viewers would likely have been), offers not a straightforward celebration of raw nature giving its imprimatur, so to speak, to homoerotic pleasure, but a discourse on the interpenetration of nature and artifice.

Davis also points out that the physiques of the men reflect not the kind of bodies acquired through hard labor or even sports, but rather the cultivated styles of musculature prescribed by the postbellum physical culture movement, bodies formed artificially by gymnasium exercise and other undertakings. They are fleshly bodies, of course, and natural in that sense; but they are also cultural productions. Sam See, I like to think, would have appreciated the fact that this is a picture that credits nature but doesn’t essentialize it, instead depicting it as a plastic medium for human formation and aesthetic enjoyment. Eakins’s depiction of nature might even qualify as queer mythology, in See’s terms: a (partial) falsehood — a reservoir passing as a lake — that somehow tells a truth.


Christopher Looby is professor of English at UCLA. He edits a series called Q19: The Queer American Nineteenth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press). Forthcoming in the series is Ethel’s Love-Life and Other Writings by Margaret J. M. Sweat.


[1] See also Charles R. Barker, “Old Mills of Mill Creek, Lower Merion,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 50.1 (1926) 1–22.

LARB Contributor

Christopher Looby is professor of English at UCLA. He edits a series called Q19: The Queer American Nineteenth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press). Forthcoming in the series is Ethel’s Love-Life and Other Writings by Margaret J. M. Sweat.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!