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Good-bye To The
Ole Swimming Hole
opinion jesse's journal
One of the most famous works of American
art is The Swimming Hole (1883), by the realist
painter and photographer Thomas Eakins (1844-
1916), now in the Amon Carter Museum in Fort
Eakins, apparently a devoted skinny dipper,
based his painting on a photo taken of himself
and some of his young male art students bathing
in the buff at Mill Creek near Bryn Mawr,
Pennsylvania. (Eakins can be seen in the water on
the lower right corner of his painting, admiring
The scholar Carla Williams, who wrote about
Eakins for the GLBTQ.com encyclopedia of LGBT
culture, calls The Swimming Hole "a prime
example of homoeroticism in American art." It
is certainly the most notable piece of gayrotic
American art before Paul Cadmus's Shore Leave
(1933). Eakins was obviously influenced by Walt
Whitman, whose poetry he admired and who
later became a close friend. Critics agree that
Eakins got the idea for his Swimming Hole from
the following lines in Whitman's poem "Song of
"Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly; ...
"The beards of the young men glisten'd with
wet, it ran from their long hair,
Little streams passed all over their bodies."
Though critics still argue about Eakins's own
sexual orientation, there is no doubt that he was
a great admirer of the male art form. According
to Eakins, a naked woman "is the most beautiful
thing there is - except a naked man."
In his biography of Eakins, William Innes
Homer wrote that "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."
The Swimming Hole could serve as an
illustration for Whitman's poetry, which
Penguin Books acknowledged when it used The
Swimming Hole for the cover of its own edition
of Whitman's Complete Poems.
The Swimming Hole would not be possible
today. For one thing, Eakins would probably
be arrested for "child pornography," since
some of his models are clearly under 18. Urban
sprawl and suburban expansion have made it
increasingly difficult to skinny dip on Mill Creek,
though some of my Pennsylvania readers might
correct me on that one. Even worse, the relative
innocence of Eakins's time has given way to a
more "sophisticated" world view where many
equal nudism with sexuality and physical contact
between men with homosexuality.
The youths whose grandparents swam and
bathed nude alongside their naked fathers,
brothers, uncles, male cousins, male chums or
male teachers would now rather go dirty and
smelly than take showers after sports or gym
class; much less allow themselves to go naked in
a public watering hole with other, equally naked,
Throughout history, men and boys have swam,
showered or bathed naked in the company of
other males, and nobody thought the worse of it.
This has nothing to do with homosexuality but
with the fact that, until recently, most men and
boys did not find it necessary to cover up in front
of other boys and men.
Nor was all-male nude bathing or swimming
limited to public waterways. Until the middle of
the last century, nude swimming was common in
same-sex institutions like the YMCA, admittedly
to the delight of generations of gay men. Naked
men would horseplay, roughhouse and play grab-
ass with one another without anyone thinking
they were queer.
Men and boys only wore bathing suits in
public beaches, spas, and other places were girls
and women were present. For their part, skinny-
dipping was never as popular with females,
though here again a reader might be able to
Whether or not men are more likely than
women to go naked in public may be debated.
I should point out, however, that in clothing-
optional beaches men --- gay, bisexual or
heterosexual --- are more likely than women to
go the Full Monty.
In Eakins's time, men could be intimate with
other men without raising the red flag of sexual
deviation. Eakins himself only got in trouble
with the morals police when he used a nude
male model in a life drawing class in front of his
female students. Not even the sternest puritan
raised an eyebrow or complained when Eakins
and his young male students frolicked naked in
the waters of Mill Creek.
Things have changed a lot during the last
century, and not for the better. Though a few
"swimming holes" - like Hippie Hollow near
Austin, Texas - still exist, they are mostly used
by naturists of all genders and by gay, bisexual
or "bi-curious" men cruising for sex. The idyllic
world that Thomas Eakins immortalized in The
Swimming Hole no longer exists.
And we are the worse for it.
The scholar Carla
Williams, who wrote about
Eakins for the GLBTQ.
com encyclopedia of
LGBT culture, calls The
Swimming Hole "a prime
example of homoeroticism
in American art."
The Swimming Hole is an 1884--85 painting by the American artist Thomas Eakins
(1844--1916), is considered a masterpiece of American painting.
Thomas Eakins - Amon Carter Museum
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