Biglin Brothers Racing is one of eleven works Eakins painted of John and Barney Biglin, two champion rowers from New York. In the 1870s, rowing became one of America’s most popular spectator sports and Eakins (a rower himself) was the first to capture its muscular grace, energy, precision on the canvas. This painting dates from 1872 when the Biglin brothers visited Philadelphia and raced on the Schuykill River.
The composition of the painting is fascinating.
The Biglin brothers' boat seems to occupy the very center of the painting, but it does not. The curve of the stern rower's back divides the painting's left and right halves and gives the rowers a visual push out of the frame toward the right (and finish line). The bank of the river--not the brothers' boat--divides the painting horizontally and seems to squeeze the rowers into the middle of the painting as does the prow of the second boat, which, though it barely makes it onto the canvas could be a threat to our champion rowers.
Add the trees and the boathouse and we have many strong horizontal lines. But not only horizontal lines, which would make this painting static and dull. Rowers' bodies natural move into diagonals as they row--backs, arms, thighs, calves. Their oars also create strong diagonal lines; Eakins has placed that long oar in the center of the painting.
Oh! And just look at those clouds will you? The four cumulus clouds mirror the angle of the oar blade exactly, adding to the dynamic energy that is the diagonal line.
Don't tell me you never noticed?
Well, now you have and you will probably always be looking for clouds in paintings when you go to art galleries. Just don't point them out to anyone. It's obnoxious I hear.
And, for my father, brothers, husband, sons, nieces, and nephews (rowers all) interested in more, here is a comment from a National Gallery of Art curator (and likely rower):
"Himself an amateur oarsman and a friend of the Biglins, Eakins portrays John with his blade still feathered, almost at the end of his return motion. Barney, a split-second ahead in his stroke, watches for his younger brother’s oar to bite the water. Both ends of the Biglins’ pair-oared boat project beyond the picture’s edges, generating a sense of urgency, as does the other prow jutting suddenly into view."