This painting and The Gross Clinic get my vote to be placed among the greatest of American paintings and among the greatest of the 19th Century.
Like The Gross Clinic, this painting is an extended portrait, in this case of the champion rower Max Schmidt seen on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia in his scull, the Josie. Eakins was himself an enthusiastic rower. He appears in this painting busily rowing a scull with his name on it. There are other rowers at regular intervals beyond Eakins. Schmidt has apparently just won the race by a comfortable lead and is gliding back to claim the prize.
What is particularly appealing about this painting is the contrast between the small, but confident, figure of Schmidt and the vast ever extending river beyond. There is always a poignant contrast in Eakins' work between the largeness of the task and the frailty of the mere mortals who accomplish it. Even in The Gross Clinic, Dr. Charles Gross looks elderly and exhausted as he performs surgery and teaches class.
Another thing that is so remarkable about this painting is its shimmering luminosity and striking realism. Eakins clearly has made use of photography, not in a direct literal way of taking photographs to be copied in a painting, but in trying to emulate what the camera does; looking at the world with an unprejudiced and candid eye. Eakins captures so beautifully and so accurately a perfect afternoon for rowing; in the autumn on a still and glassy river. Eakins observes closely how the sky reflects in the water, how the boats and their oars disrupt its glassy surface leaving wakes and eddies. The boats themselves are painted with great care for accuracy. The ironwork bridges in the background are a reminder of Eakins' first formal drawing instruction; high school mechanical drawing class. He carefully pays attention to outdoor lighting, to colors, to the whole overall late afternoon autumn effect they create together. He carefully made his painting out of a large collection of facts about the scene and the event.
It is striking to note that this painting was made at the very same time that Monet and Renoir were inventing Impressionism in France, another movement about painting things factually.
However, Impressionism (especially Monet's work) was about our optical experience of the world more than about the world itself. Monet and Renoir in the early part of their careers painted from life in the outdoors as much as possible. Eakins, by contrast, remains a true alumnus of the French Ecole des Beaux Arts. His painting was made entirely in the studio, and has a narrative subject, Max Schmidt winning a race. The Impressionists avoided any direct narrative subject matter. Eakins, for all of his 19th century positivism, was very much a humanist at heart. People and their stories remain the primary subjects of his attention. Perhaps this is why Eakins and his work remain sympathetic for us on the other side of the 20th Century in a way that the Impressionists do not.