Closer Readings Commentary

Eakins’ Vision of American Recreation—“In the Good Old Summer Time”


“[R]emain in America to peer deeper into the heart of American life."—Thomas Eakins

Summertime is vacation time, time for a break. This month EDSITEment features lesson plans and websites that focus on American leisure, past and present. As middle-class Americans gained leisure time in the late 1800s, sports like baseball, bicycling, and sculling became popular in the U.S. One of the most well-known images of such an activity, Thomas Eakins’ John Biglin in a Single Scull (11-A), is part of Picturing America. The accompanying Teachers Resource Book has background information and art observation activities. As part of this July feature, we are including a lesson based on Eakins's painting as well as primary sources about late 19th-century leisure activities.

EDSITEment’s lesson plan Having Fun: Leisure and Entertainment at the Turn of the Twentieth Century invites students to explore how innovations in culture and technology influenced the development of America’s leisure industry ca. 1900. Students may learn about composition from another one of Eakins’ paintings of sculling in EDSITEment’s lesson plan, Repeat After Me: Repetition in the Visual Arts. This lesson is part of a three-lesson unit on pictorial composition. Using the Launchpad students may access Thomas Eakins's The Champion Single Sculls and a line drawing of it.

Learn more about Thomas Eakins and his art on these EDSITEment-reviewed sites:

U.S. Leisure in the late 1800s

As the turn of the 20th century approached, some Americans found themselves with “extra” time. Where did this “extra” time come from? The Industrial Revolution made some of this possible. Jobs that once took a painstakingly long time were now done with the help of mechanization. Over time, as the country’s industrial force relied more on factories, people found themselves with more time—partially because they also demanded shorter work days, better working conditions, and even paid holidays and vacations.

Americans put this newfound time to the test. Circus shows, bicycle riding, the exhibits at the World’s Fairs, held from the mid-19th century on, and magazines for women were just a few novel additions to leisure activities in the United States.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916)

Philadelphia-based artist Thomas Eakins showed an early flair for drawing during high school. After graduation, he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where students drew from plaster casts, not the live models that Eakins preferred. So, he began attending anatomy lectures at nearby Jefferson Medical School. Eakins would go on to paint one of his most famous works about an anatomy lecture there. In 1866, he traveled to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, where live models were an acceptable part of the curriculum. While in Europe he learned to create art by carefully observing and sketching his subjects. The intense attention to detail and anatomy revealed by this approach to painting and Eakins’ preference for subjects of contemporary life is termed realism and is the approach to art he continued when he returned to Philadelphia in 1870.

As a realist artist, Eakins showed middle-class Americans in contemporary activities rather than painting lofty gods and goddesses or the very rich in swaggering poses. By 1876 he had returned as an instructor to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where his students drew from live models. However, Eakins ran afoul of local tastes when he removed the loincloth of a male model in a class attended by both male and female students, and was forced to resign when students complained.

Eakins himself was physically active and enthusiastically rowed, swam, sailed, hunted, and played sports. He considered his sculling paintings to be typically American and during his career, made about thirty paintings of rowers. When New York’s famous professional rowers, the Biglin brothers, came to Philadelphia to race on the Schuylkill River, Eakins was present to paint them as they practiced and raced. The relatively brief clothing worn by rowers in particular provided Eakins with a socially acceptable opportunity to paint human anatomy. (Notice Biglin’s arm muscles in John Biglin in a Single Scull.)

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John Biglin in a Single Scull, 1873

In John Biglin in a Single Scull, Eakins focuses our attention on the ace rower by placing him in the center of the painting and contrasting his red headscarf with the cool blue hues of the background. Although it’s a racing picture, the many horizontal lines create a calm, expansive feeling. Actual and implied lines run from Biglin's head, along his back to his boat and through his arms and oar to form stabilizing triangles that hold the main subject in place. It is only by looking more closely, at the hull of the approaching scull on the far left that we realize the tension, strength, and drama of the race underlying this apparently peaceful scene.

“There is so much beauty in reflections that it is generally well worth-while to try to get them right.”—Thomas Eakins

This watercolor shows a summer day with white clouds, sparkling water, and the bright sun on the back of Biglin’s white shirt. Watercolor is a transparent, fast-drying medium that doesn’t lend itself to reworking. Because white areas are usually the white of the paper, the artist either doesn’t paint the white parts or scrapes away paint to reveal white. Eakins carefully planned his art before he began to paint by drawing large pencil studies of his subjects and plotting the precise location of water ripples receding into the distance.

Social Studies/Art Activities about Past and Present Leisure Pursuits

Use the following activities and reproducible pages to help students understand Eakins’ sports paintings and their relationship to the newly-gained leisure time of 19th century middle-class Americans. 

Suggested Activities

Activity 1. Look and Think

Activity 2. Leisure Time, Then and Now. Includes Interactive

Activity 3. Investigating Primary Sources

Activity 4. Drawing Past and Present Leisure Activities

Activity 1. Look and Think

Print the Look and Think worksheet. Students may answer the questions and locate features as they view a large color image of Eakins’ painting, John Biglin in a Single Scull. They will need color markers or pencils to complete this activity. Use the students’ answers to stimulate a class discussion about this painting. See the completed Look and Think answer sheet.

Activity 2. Leisure Time, Then and Now. Includes Interactive

Detail from 19th century leisure interactive

In this activity, students may use the reproducible Leisure Time, Then and Now Activity sheet to help them brainstorm ways that they spend their leisure time. This can be done individually, in small groups or as a whole group discussion. Then, ask students to travel back one-hundred years in time—what do they think children did for leisure back then? Give them time to brainstorm, listing all their responses (even if some of them are incorrect). As an additional activity, students can use this interactive on the New York-to-Rhode Island Fall River Line to get an idea of what leisure was like in the late 19th-century for Americans of all classes. This interactive accompanies the lesson plan Having Fun: Leisure and Entertainment at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, which has additional activities.

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Activity 3. Investigating Primary Sources

During this activity, students will see if any of their brainstorming ideas about leisure one hundred years ago were correct. Explain that the last part of the 19th century is known as the Gilded Age because some industrialists made huge fortunes and many middle-class Americans gained more time and money as machines made their work and lives easier. Have students work in small groups to study Gilded Age documents (printouts of selected primary sources including posters, baseball cards, photographs, and magazine pages). They should complete the primary sources worksheet about late 19th-century leisure activities.

After students have answered the questions on this worksheet, come together as a class to discuss their answers. Ask students what they learned from this activity. What surprised them? What do they still want to know more about? Have students revisit their answers from Activity 2 and see how many they guessed correctly.

Activity 4. Drawing Past and Present Leisure Activities

  • Have students draw each other posing like rower John Biglin in Eakins’ painting and baseball players in Primary Source 1. Then invite volunteers to pose like they are playing their favorite sports or active leisure activities. Students may make a series of quick pencil or marker sketches of these action poses.
  • Students should develop one of their sketches into a more complex drawing by adding background details and color. Will they show a modern scene or one from the past? They should consider how clothes and background details can suggest a 19th- or 21st-century scene. For example, today cell phone towers, signs, or buildings might punctuate the background of Eakins’ scene.
  • Encourage students to make their action figure the most important part of their composition by drawing it large, placing it near the center of their drawing, or making it darker, brighter, or a different color than the rest of the drawing.
  • Students may add color to their drawings with markers, watercolors, or tempera paint.
  • Have students write a descriptive label for their drawing. It should identify the leisure activity they depicted and when this activity might have occurred—now, or a hundred years ago.


Have students pick one of the leisure activities on the list from one-hundred years ago that they DIDN’T learn about today and have them research it for homework. They can make their own info sheet to share with others. Students should include the name of the leisure activity, the year (or time frame) it became popular, a picture of their activity, and anything else they learned that was interesting from their research.

Past and Present Leisure Activity Collage

Students may create a collage showing leisure activities of today and the late 19th century. They may cut out, arrange, and glue images from the Primary Sources in Activity 3, websites, magazines, and current newspapers onto heavy paper to illustrate differences between today’s leisure activities and those of the past.

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Teacher/Student Resources

  • Peiss, Kathy. Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986. 
    Format: Paperback

    What did young, independent women do for fun and how did they pay their way into New York City's turn-of-the-century pleasure places? Cheap Amusements is a fascinating discussion of young working women, whose meager wages often fell short of bare subsistence and rarely allowed for entertainment expenses.

    Kathy Peiss follows working women into saloons, dance halls, Coney Island amusement parks, social clubs, and nickelodeons to explore the culture of these young women between 1880 and 1920 as expressed in leisure activities. By examining the rituals and styles they adopted and by placing that culture in the larger context of urban working-class life, she offers us a complex picture of the dynamics shaping a working woman's experience and consciousness at the turn of the century.

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