Max Schmitt and his reflection have been with me some sixty years, almost my entire life. I first saw him as a child, browsing through the only art book we had on the shelves, Modern American Painting, by Peyton Boswell, Jr., published in 1939. My mother’s influence, but perhaps my father’s. Schmitt gazed towards but not directly at me, with a look that wasn’t recognition or identification yet which made contact and left an opening I haven’t yet closed. With the opening, a proposition that I couldn’t understand then but may have felt, or maybe just a simple statement I still don’t wish to refute. I bought a print some fifteen years ago and he has been on a wall as I’ve moved around the last years, a protracted season of dislocation.
The painting is Thomas Eakins’s The Champion Single Sculls, also known as Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, completed in 1871. Click the image above for full enlargement. Schmitt, a friend of the painter, was Philadelphia’s single-scull champion several years. Rowing was popular then, and he was a well-known and well-loved figure in amateur sports across the nation, forgotten now. But I did not know that until much later, nor does Eakins show crowds teeming on the shores cheering him on at the height of victory as he crosses the finish line. He doesn’t even show him demonstrating his strength and skill executing a hard pull on the oars in tense, charged exertion. Rather he presents him dressed in casual gear during a practice session on a crisp autumn day, by himself, in a nearly deserted scene made luminous by a clarifying late-afternoon sun. Schmitt has just made a turn on the Schuylkill River and now relaxes, the wakes from his scull and oars leaving broad trailing curves that take us into the painting and set its composition, giving it its energy. To me, for so many years, he was only a man named Schmitt and he was just there, resting above the still water, looking out, balancing the oars in one hand, which more and more I realize is a marvelous feat.
The bridges are rendered in sharp, accurate perspective—Eakins was a master of the technique—but other painters had already begun to flatten space and dismantle it, taking art in rapid acceleration on an unknown path. And we see on the horizon the developing technology of the time, the train about to cross one bridge, a steam boat to pass under, this when our technology was taking off, with it, our mounting wonder.
Nor does Eakins show influence of the Impressionists, who had already begun exploring the transience of light and stating the primacy of paint, of colors. Above, Claude Monet’s Bathers at La Grenouillère, painted in 1869.
There is no evidence Eakins even visited the Salon des Refusés, and he had his chance. He was in Paris at the time, studying under Jean-Léon Gérôme, an academic painter who enjoyed considerable popular and critical success, for example with his Ave Caesar! Morituri te salutant (Hail Caesar! We Who Are about to Die Salute You).
Eakins has done nothing to alter the esthetic course of art or change our perceptions. He presents the world as solid, and academic rigor anchors his work. Yet the painting is alive, in the shimmering blur of brush along the shore, the erratic reach of the trees, the brisk scrape of clouds above. It succeeds at what makes any work endure, working within a form and giving it life and expression. I have never tired of looking. Each time it is fresh and vital.
He does make a break, however, and it comes from his subject matter, which was rejected by the official salons of Paris and shocked established Philadelphia. He has given us a common man not posing but relaxing in informal clothes, performing an everyday behavior without ceremony, without appropriation of past claims and pretense, in an ordinary place without hierarchy of space or institution. We have begun to look at ourselves and it is liberating.
Perhaps Schmitt is looking at someone on the shore, perhaps he is taken in a thought, or perhaps he is deflecting one. There’s a severity in his face and he seems to scowl, but he’s only frowning in the glare of the sun. His look did not put me off as a boy and must have instilled this note back then, that whoever, wherever we are, whatever we hope to be, we need to maintain vigilance, skepticism, and a measure of reserve.
Really, Eakins doesn’t give us much to identify him as an individual, but his portrait is made in the whole landscape, of which he is a part but where he keeps his separation. There is light. And there is transcendence, but where it takes us is back to exactly what we see, the clouds, the trees, the brush, the trailing curves in the river, and Max Schmitt resting above still water, looking out, balancing oars in one hand.
I have looked at the painting several times this past week, for confirmation, or reassurance, or to restore a definition, and I realize how the painting has always stood for me, that it shows me what it means to be American, vigorous and assertive yet relaxed and open, and free of historical encumbrance; self-assured but not self-possessed and not afraid.
Failing that, it is a picture of what it means to be alive, to be oneself by oneself, and not be alone.
There’s a kind of idealism in realism, or can be, a belief that the simple fact of our existence is worth stating and preserving.