Set on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it celebrates the victory of Eakins's friend Max Schmitt in the October 5, 1870, single sculls competition. The painting's composition echoes the event by reproducing the weather conditions/position of the sun at the date and time of Schmitt's triumph. Schmitt is depicted rowing upstream; his location is just south of the Columbia Railroad Bridge, the midpoint of the race. Eakins, who was also a keen rower, included himself as the sculler in the middle distance.More ...
Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (also known as The Champion Single Sculls or The Champion, Single Sculls) is an 1871 painting by Thomas Eakins, Goodrich catalogue #44. It in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Set on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it celebrates the victory of Eakins's friend Max Schmitt in the October 5, 1870, single sculls competition.
Max Schmitt (1843–1900) had attended Philadelphia Central High School with Eakins, and the two were close friends. Schmitt was a member of the Pennsylvania Barge Club – as, it is presumed, was Eakins – one of nine men's clubs in the Schuylkill Navy, and twelve that rowed on the river. The Schuylkill Navy had been organized in 1858, with approximately 300 members, and began hosting annual regattas in 1859 (with a four-year hiatus for the American Civil War). Initially, the races were for 6-oared and 4-oared gigs and barges, but a new kind of lightweight craft was rapidly gaining popularity: the racing scull.
Sculls, or shells, were narrower, longer, and a lot faster. Gigs had their oarlocks mounted on the sides (like a rowboat), but sculls had them a couple feet outside the boat thanks to riggers, triangular braces that projected out from the sides. This increased the efficiency of every stroke, and led to much longer oars. Meanwhile, boats got longer and hulls got narrower, until they were as narrow as was possible while still retaining sufficient buoyancy and balance.
Schmitt was an early convert to sculls, and owned his own, named "Josie" after his sister. The name of the scull is visible in the painting just below Schmitt's right hand. In September 1866, the Schuylkill Navy's annual regatta first featured a single-sculls race (3 miles, 1 turn), and Schmitt won it. He won again in July 1867, but in September came in second to another Pennsylvania Barge rower in a longer (4 miles, 1 turn) race. He did not participate in 1868, when fellow Pennsylvania Barge rowers won first and second. Schmitt won the single-sculls title again in June 1869, but in September came in second to an Undine Barge Club rower.
In 1870 the four top rowers in the Schuylkill Navy all belonged to the Pennsylvania Barge Club: Schmitt; Charles Brossman (who had won the title in 1868, and beaten Schmitt in the 4-mile race in September 1867); Austin Street (who had placed second in 1868); and John Lavens, Jr. They were the four competitors in the October championship race.
The course was 3 miles long: beginning near Turtle Rock (Turtle Rock Light is the lighthouse at the northwest end of Boathouse Row), proceeding upriver under the Girard Avenue and Pennsylvania Railroad Connecting Bridges to a stake near the Columbia Railroad Bridge, making a 180-degree turn around the stake, and then heading downriver back to the starting line.
Schmitt not only re-established himself as the pre-eminent rower on the Schuylkill River, he set a new record, completing the 3-mile, 1-turn course in 20:00 minutes.
Schmitt did not defend his title the following year, and Lavens won with a time of 19:59 minutes, shaving one second off Schmitt's record. Schmitt raced one-on-one against Lavens for the single-sculls championship in 1872, and won (but did not beat Lavens's record). Schmitt sat out 1873, and Lavens won again. The two raced one-on-one again in 1874, and Schmitt won again. Having regained the championship (but not the record) and never having been defeated by Lavens, Schmitt retired from single-sculls competition. But that same year, he and Lavens joined forces to help win the Four-Oared Shell competition for the Pennsylvania Barge Club. Another Eakins painting (unfinished) may commemorate that June 17, 1874 victory.
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