Above is a oil on canvas portrait of Walt Whitman by the American realist painter Thomas Eakins (1844-1916). The photographed portrait of an elderly Whitman I posted on January 1st, as well as the image that is this blog’s banner right now, are also Eakins’ work.
More of Eakins’ work featuring Whitman as the subject is easily accessible via a simple Google search, as well as a Google Image search. I especially like the photograph taken by Eakins of the sculptor William Rudolph O’Donovan working on a bust of Whitman – there are so many different and intersecting levels and kinds of artistry present in the image; artists celebrating one another. As though Eakins was looking for Whitman everywhere, in myriad incarnations: in oil and flesh as well as in stone or clay. And don’t even get me started on O’Donovan’s impressive mustache!:
But back to Eakins.
Here is the painting he is possibly most famous for, titled “The Swimming Hole” and completed between 1884 and 1885, it depicts with near exactitude the scene looked upon by the lonely voyeur in section of 11 of Leaves of Grass:
Of all Eakins’s portraits of Whitman, this one seems, to me anyway, like another. Only, rather than looking at Whitman, Eakins is looking into Whitman, or even into Whitman with Whitman, if that makes any sense.
Once again, here is section 11 of Leaves of Grass:
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.