Starting Out After Rail
Thomas Eakins, American, 1844–1916 American
61.59 x 50.48 cm (24 1/4 x 19 7/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas mounted on Masonite
Barbara and Theodore Alfond Gallery (Gallery 234)
Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins had many and varied interests, and they all found their way into his pictures. He was an eager student of anatomy, attending lectures at local medical schools even while completing his artistic training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Philadelphia’s doctors and professors of medicine figure prominently among the subjects of his portraits. He was fascinated by perspective, optics, and stop-motion photography, and used perspective studies and photography in planning his oils and watercolors. He enjoyed music and often painted rehearsals, home musicales, and professionals in concert. He was also an avid outdoorsman, and especially in the 1870s, when his career was just beginning, he painted a number of pictures of friends and family members hunting, rowing, racing sailboats or, as here, setting out in pursuit of rail, small game birds that were plentiful in the marshes along the Delaware River.
The sailors in this picture were friends of Eakins’s, Sam Helhower and Harry Young; their names are inscribed on the watercolor version of this painting (1874, Wichita Art Museum, Kansas). Eakins was a highly disciplined artist and often made carefully crafted studies in one medium as preparation for a work in another. In the case of Starting Out After Rail, he made a perspective drawing and this oil in advance of the watercolor. The composition reflects his love of boats and his fascination with perspective: as Eakins himself said, “I know of no prettier problem in perspective than to draw a yacht sailing . . . tilted over sideways by the force of the wind.”link Here, the “yacht” is a Delaware ducker, a small skiff that came into widespread use in the 1870s. His perspective study enabled him to place the boat so that the viewer—presumably positioned on a wharf, for the men have just begun their expedition—can see into the boat and understand its simple construction. In his precisely realistic style, honed during years of study in France with Jean-Léon Gérôme link, Eakins renders the expressions of the sailors and their telling poses—one intent on manning the rudder, the other leaning more casually against the side of the boat—as vividly as in a close-up photograph. The bright sky and shimmering, blue-brown water make the scene seem even more immediate.
Eakins clearly thought highly of this image, for he sent the oil to Gérôme in Paris to gauge his progress. The watercolor was the first picture he submitted to the American Watercolor Society’s annual shows. Although praised for its originality, the watercolor did not sell; Eakins reportedly later traded it for a boat.
1. Thomas Eakins, typescript, p. 41, Philadelphia Museum of Art, quoted in Kathleen A. Foster, Thomas Eakins Rediscovered: Charles Bregler’s Thomas Eakins Collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 132.
This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting link, MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).