Column: Good-bye to the Ole Swimming Hole

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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 Worth, Texas.

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 his companions.)

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 Myself”:

“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, males.

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 correct me.

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.


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