Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Thomas Eakins Perspective Fail

Thomas Eakins' The Champion Single Sculls (1871) is a Realist masterpiece of balance and restraint. As a painter, he was famously meticulous when it came to constructing space according to the rules of linear perspective.

Preparatory drawing for Single Sculls, by Thomas Eakins.
His preparatory drawings for Single Sculls show the length to which he went to create a believable behind-the-canvas world, using a fine grid on the ground plane (in this case, the surface of the river).

His reflections are impeccable. Except for one major discrepancy. Why are there no reflections of the bridge or clouds? The dark land mass to the right of the bridge is on the same plane, and is seen reflected in what is clearly a smooth surface, and yet the bridge isn't. Why not?

Eakins' Single Scull painting, modified to include bridge and sky reflections

Even a stickler for the rules like Eakins knew how to bend them every now and then for the sake of artistry.  When reflected in the water, his stylized and decorative clouds produce a graphic effect that takes away from his sense of "realism." The same applies to the reflection of the bridge. If he'd included their reflections, they'd have created strong graphic shapes that place emphasis on the horizon and negatively impact the balance he has created between foreground, middle distance and background.

I took the liberty of adding the sky and bridge reflections (above) so you can see my point, and placed the modified (left) and original (right) paintings below for easy comparison...


  1. A beautiful demonstration — there's no doubt that Eakins' original has a greater depth.

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