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American Art: Gay Male, Nineteenth Century  
 
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Eakins was profoundly influenced by the ideas of Walt Whitman, with whom he became close friends, after painting his portrait in 1887-1888. Eakins' carefully composed images of naked youths in arcadian landscape settings (such as The Swimming Hole, 1893-1895) constitute visual equivalents of Whitman's poems, celebrating male beauty and comradeship. Eakins often painted scenes of all-male athletic activities, such as rowing (for example, The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake, 1873) and boxing (for example, Counting Out, 1888).

As a teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, Eakins emphasized to his students the importance of the study of the naked male figure. His insistence that women students draw from unclothed male models caused him to be dismissed from his position at the Academy in 1886. His attempt to establish an independent Art Students League ended in financial disaster. Out of fashion for the rest of his life, he struggled to make a living by painting commissioned portraits.

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During his later years, Eakins certainly derived a great deal of emotional support from his wife, Susan Macdowell, a former student, whom he married in 1884, shortly before his fortieth birthday. Susan Macdowell shared many of her husband's interests, and, like him, she was an ardent admirer of Whitman's poetry. His austere portrait of her (1899) reveals both her strong personality and her warm affection for the artist.

Eakins also developed a very close relationship with Samuel Murray (1869-1941), a working-class Irishman whom he trained as a sculptor. The two shared a studio for eleven years, and they took extended wilderness trips together. Like Whitman's romantic associations with younger men, this relationship of an older and younger man corresponds with Platonic ideals of male relationships.

There has been much scholarly speculation about the extent to which Eakins was fully aware of the homoerotic implications of his treatment of the male figure. Even though the modern concept of homosexuality had not yet been formulated, it seems very unlikely to the present writer that this forthright and honest supporter of Whitman's ideals would be entirely naive about this aspect of his work.

In particular, his numerous photographs of his students at the site of the Swimming Hole (1883) evoke the erotic appeal of the youths. In these photographic studies, he consistently posed the figures so as to emphasize their genitals and to suggest various physical and emotional interactions among them. In his final painting of this scene, Eakins modestly concealed their genitals, but he subtly revealed his voyeuristic fascination with the youths by portraying himself as a swimming figure (in the lower right foreground), gazing longingly up at them.

The Dandy: Sargent

In contrast to Homer and Eakins, many American artists active in the late nineteenth century disdained images of their own country and sought inspiration in Europe. Among them was John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who settled permanently in London in 1884.

Developing a fashionable style, ultimately influenced by such "Old Masters" as Velázquez and Frans Hals, Sargent quickly established an international reputation as the leading portraitist of the wealthy elite. Many of his clients included Americans, whom he sketched during their overseas trips or on his occasional visits to the United States.

Most scholars have asserted that Sargent was essentially an asexual individual, devoted only to his career. Eager to be accepted as a member of "high society," the bachelor Sargent maintained an impeccable and restrained public persona. Yet, despite his evident concern with his reputation, Sargent moved freely in the emerging "gay circles" in London and Boston. In his portraits of writers and artists from these groups (for example, W. Graham Robertson, 1894), he created archetypal images of the elegant, figure of the dandy.

Sargent's sensitivity to the beauties of the nude male figure is most evident in an extensive series of studies and watercolors, which he never exhibited and which he kept in his personal possession until his death. One group of sketches depict a mature, notably athletic figure in bold stances; the sketches literally thrust the model's genitals toward the viewer.

Many pieces depict a youthful model, reclining casually and languidly on a bed, with legs spread wide apart, as if to emphasize his genitals. A mood of voyeuristic intimacy is created through such features as the close "cropping" of the bed and the unconventional perspective from immediately above the figure.

Sargent's "finished" watercolors of the clothed figure of his friend Peter Harrison, who is shown reclining on a bed (approximately 1905), are infused with the same intimate and sensual mood as are his studies of the similarly posed nude model. Subtle indications of Sargent's appreciation of the beauties of the male body can be noted in some of his popular exhibited paintings. For example, On His Holidays (1901) features an attractive youthful hiker, resting in a sensual pose alongside a mountain stream.

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