Walt Whitman and Thomas Eakins: A Friendship of Artistic Gain
As a painter, Thomas Eakins had a relationship with Walt Whitman unlike any other. Born in Philadelphia in 1844, Eakins did not meet Whitman until the latter half of the 1880's, but "the two men had a deep respect for each other" (Goodrich 122). In his old age, Whitman had relocated to Camden, New Jersey, right across the Delaware and very close to Philadelphia. Eakins "went into the wilds of New Jersey where he found. . . Walt Whitman, in a self-chosen exile of his own. Expelled from the bourgeois world, or so the legend ran, Whitman and Eakins together built the metaphysics for a distinctly American realism -- the poet's ecstatic and high-hearted, the painter's murky and inward-turning" (Gopkin 78). The two men shared not only a friendship and mutual respect, but an artistic vision of American democracy grounded in realism. 

Philadelphia-Camden Friendship: Celebrating America 
Whitman and Eakins were friends in more than just the sense of acquaintance; in fact, Eakins was one of 32 people invited to a dinner party for Whitman's 72nd birthday (Goodrich 124). They were so close that the day after Whitman died, Eakins went to Camden with some of his students and made a death mask and hand cast of Whitman (entitled Death Mask of Walt Whitman, 1892, in Houghton Library of Harvard University. Unfortunately, no images were available). When Eakins heard of Whitman's death, he immediately contacted Horace Traubel to make the mask of his friend, a man he admired very much. This illustrates that the relationship transcended a mere respect between two artists. 

The two artists had similar ideas of America and art. "Whitman disliked European manners and conventions, and he was passionately devoted to America and to a celebration of the democratic ideal. . . The chief similarity between Eakins and Whitman was their self-sufficient confidence, which allowed them to disregard the conventions of their time. Eakins, like Whitman, insisted on making art in a way that seemed most appropriate and truthful, without giving in to popular or critical opinion" (Homer 217). They were individualists who did not waver in the face of criticism. Both men were artistically rejected in their lives -- though as Whitman aged he gained more popularity. Eakins was scrutinized by the bourgeois Philadelphia society. He paid a high price for his fascination with the nude body. Whitman also had a fascination with the body, but because of the nature of poetry -- words -- was less explicit than Eakins, who painted the body. "Both were democrats, despising forms and conventions which hid the essential human being" (Goodrich 122). The tendency to celebrate the human body was prevalent in both Whitman and Eakins' work. A major difference must be brought to light, though: "Eakins concentrated on the individual; Whitman, on humanity and the cosmos" (Homer 219). 

In spite of this idea, Eakins was still profoundly indebted to the poet. When Weda Cook (who wrote music to O Captain, My Captain!) was posing for Eakins, "the artist talked much to her about Whitman and would sometimes quote his verses" (Goodrich 122). Not only was Eakins fond of Whitman's poems, but "it was the concrete, realistic side of the poet, his observation, and his feeling for the body, that appealed most to the painter, who used to say: 'Whitman never makes a mistake'" (Goodrich 122). It is this admiration that Eakins can be classified as a Whitmanian painter. 

Walt Whitman by Thomas Eakins 
The friendship between Eakins and Whitman began in 1887. They had met in Whitman's Mickle Street residence in Camden. A few weeks later, Eakins went to Camden without warning to paint the portrait, a spontaneous act that Whitman much admired (Homer 210). "Much of Whitman's admiration for Eakins centered on the portrait" (Homer 213). In the portrait, Whitman was represented exactly how he was. By 1888, Whitman showed his age. And Whitman appreciated Eakins' portrait because it showed his age, too. There is nothing picturesque about Whitman in the portrait -- he simply looks like an old man (my index page shows the similarities between a photo and Eakins' painting). In admiration of Eakins, Whitman said, "'I never knew of but one artist, and that's Tom Eakins,' he said another time, 'who could resist the temptation to see what they ought to be rather than what is'" (Goodrich 123). It was Eakins' realism that Whitman admired so much -- a realism extending even to the portrait of the aging poet. Whitman contrasted Eakins' portrait to Herbert Gilchrist's, "which is parlor Whitman" (Goodrich 123). Whitman, focused on the realistic aspect of human beings, told Horace Traubel not to glamorize Walt's last days. 

The Swimming Hole and "Song of Myself" 

The Swimming Hole, now widely known as The Swimmers, is exemplary of Eakins' work because it shows his infatuation with the nude body. Eakins once said that "a naked woman 'is the most beautiful thing there is -- except a naked man'" (Matthiessen 604). He actually lost his teaching job at the Pennsylvania Academy because of his fondness for the nude figure (reminiscent of Whitman being fired for writing an inappropriate book). The Swimming Hole also shows that Eakins is a Whitmanian painter because "Walt's work, in turn, approaches the powerful construction of Eakins in his sketch" (Matthiessen 610). Eakins' scene directly echoes Whitman's "Song of Myself," particularly the scene with the 28 bathers. "Moreover, a number of art historians and literary critics have concluded that Swimming is a response to Whitman's 'Song of Myself'" (Folsom and Price, eds. Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive). The section that Eakins is depicting is the following: 

    Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore, 
     Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly; 
     Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome. 

     She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank, 
     She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window. 

     Which of the young men does she like the best? 
     Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her. 

     Where are you off to, lady? for I see you, 
     You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room. 

     Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather, 
     The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them. 
     The beards of the young men glisten'd with wet, it ran from their long hair, 
     Little streams pass'd all over their bodies. 

     An unseen hand also pass'd over their bodies, 
     It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs. 

     The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun, they do not ask who seizes fast to them, 
     They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch, 
     They do not think whom they souse with spray (Whitman 197-198).

Whitman's words are clearly echoed in the canvas; but so is Whitman's presence. "The example of Walt Whitman, who celebrated the joys of nudity in the open air, may well have influenced Eakins, and Whitman, in turn, would certainly have enjoyed this scene glorifying male companionship" (Homer 116). The sexuality of the painting is strikingly reminiscent of Whitman as well: "There is content in this painting that, in Whitmanesque fashion, is unabashedly sexual" (Foster 29). Themes of fraternity and sexuality permeate Walt Whitman's poems, and Eakins used these in The Swimming Hole. Knowing of  the respect and admiration that Eakins had for Whitman it is no wonder he plays a role in Eakins' painting. It is important that it occurs in The Swimming Hole -- Eakins, who like Whitman was somewhat ostracized because of his love for being naked and undisguised, looks to Whitman to convey ideas of 'manly love' or sexuality. 

In Swimming: Thomas Eakins, the Twenty-ninth Bather, Elizabeth Johns suggests that the above poem is applicable to the lives of the two men. "Here, Whitman as the woman who is both poet and character in the poem brings the young men into full sexual experience, but, in the self-centeredness of immaturity, they do not recognize her agency" (Johns 77). The poem again acts as an influence on Eakins: "In Whitman's poem are the two worlds in Eakins' picture: one inhabited by high-spirited young men -- the subjects of Swimming -- the other by an observing presence that rejoices in their beauty and loves them with a tenderness and passion of which they are oblivious" (Johns 77-8). 

Thomas Eakins is a Whitmanian painter; he was inspired and influenced by the the great poet Walt Whitman. Eakins had the unique opportunity to befriend the poet -- he therefore is influenced by Whitman as a poet and as a person. Their friendly personal relationship is evidence of this, as is The Swimming Hole. As realists, Eakins and Whitman again are similar -- both want to depict the actuality of America.

 The Gross Clinic -- an example of Eakins' realism
Back to Index page: Walt Whitman and the Visual Arts
Thomas Eakins on the Internet
Thomas C. Eakins: A Short Bio
Photo of Walt Whitman in Camden: By Thomas Eakins?
Want to buy books on Eakins?

Works Cited

Folsom, Ed and Kenneth Price, eds. "1882 'Sonf of Myself,' lines 200-217." The Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive. Available: / Accessed 03 May 1999. 

Foster, Kathleen. "The Making and Meaning of Swimming." Thomas Eakins and the Swimming Picture. eds. Doreen Bulger and Sarah Cash. Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1996. 

Goodrich, Lloyd. Thomas Eakins: His Life and Work. New York: AMS Press, 1970. 
Gopnick, Adam. "Eakins in the Wilderness." New Yorker 70 (December 26, 1994-January 2, 1995), 78-91. 

Homer, William Innes. Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1992. 

Johns, Elizabeth. "Swimming: Thomas Eakins, the Twenty-ninth Bather." Thomas Eakins and the Swimming Picture. eds. Doreen Bulger and Sarah Cash. Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1996. 

Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941.

Whitman, Walt. Whitman: Poetry and Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.