October in Philadelphia is a beautiful time of year. Thomas Eakins' painting, The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull), perfectly captures a perfect Philadelphia October day. Yet this painting is not just a pretty picture; it is packed with significant imagery and it made an impact on the art world and on the world of sports.
1. Thomas Eakins believed that the painter's job was to specify what time it was, what month it was, and where the weather was heading, as well as what kind of people were there, what they were doing, and why they were doing it. In The Champion Single Sculls, it is around 5 p.m. on October 5, 1870, and the star of the painting is Max Schmitt, a childhood friend of the artist, resting after his victory in a rowing tournament on the Schuylkill River.
2. This painting, the first of 24 rowing paintings that Eakins completed over the course of 4 years, was the first time rowing was the focus of serious art. However, the stuffy Philadelphia critics didn't take well to Eakins' subject matter, even though rowing was, at the time, one of the most popular sports. A critic remarked that his subject matter was "a shock to the artistic conventionalities of the city."
3. Eakins captured many Philadelphia features in the painting, including the Schuylkill River, which ran near his home; the Girard Avenue Bridge and the Connecting Railroad Bridge; and mansions (Egglesfield and Sweetbriar) from two different eras.
4. The rower directly behind Schmitt is Eakins himself. His name and the year are printed on the back of his boat. Other background features include a red canoe occupied by two rowers accompanied by a coxswain in traditional Quaker garb; a locomotive about to cross one bridge; and a steamboat downriver.
5. A poem titled "The Mystery of Max Schmitt," written by Phillip Dacey in 2000, is based on the painting and is spoken from Schmitt's point of view. It contemplates the changes the popular sport was about to undergo.
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