'Between Rounds': An Eakins classic

More than 100 years ago, painter Thomas Eakins depicted Philadelphia sports in rich and revealing.

Posted: July 22, 2007

First of three parts

As he sat in the smoky Arena Athletic Club on North Broad Street the night of April 22, 1898, sketching the scene that would become his last great painting, Thomas Eakins unknowingly was depicting themes - disillusionment, unrest, skepticism - that would resonate in Philadelphia sports throughout the next century and beyond.

At the center of the artist's finished product, a brooding boxing tableau he called Between Rounds, a local athlete is about to disappoint a hometown crowd. Nearby, a policeman stands guard between the ring and the fans, some looming restlessly overhead.

And, above the policeman's bobby hat, beneath a sign identifying them somewhat grandly as "The Press," sit several Philadelphia sportswriters. Already visible is the foot-on-the-railing cynicism that would soon become their calling card.

Of course, Eakins - whose masterwork, The Gross Clinic, recently was the subject of an emotional and expensive tug-of-war in the city's art world - wasn't interested in foreshadowing the future. He was obsessed with capturing the present.

And much of what Philadelphia's greatest painter captured in the final three decades of the 19th century involved sports.

An athlete himself as well as a dedicated realist, Eakins was captivated by the challenge of portraying the human body - what one contemporary critic termed "beautifully ugly muscles" - in motion.

Now, 91 years after Eakins' death, the richly detailed works that resulted serve as both journalism and art. Created in an era in which athletic photography was rare, they have become historical documents portraying Philadelphia sports at the moment they were being transformed from gentlemanly pursuits to democratic pastimes.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is planning an exhibit of Eakins' many sports-related paintings. And three of them - Between Rounds, Baseball Players Practicing (1875), and The Champion Single Sculls (1870) - are particularly revealing for Philadelphians.

In those portraits of the insouciant featherweight from South Philadelphia, the stiff-legged pair of Philadelphia Athletics and the resting Schuylkill oarsman, Eakins provided future generations with an unparalleled glimpse at sports in this city more than a century ago.

"Serious artists just didn't paint those things," said Kathleen Foster, the curator of American art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and an Eakins authority. "Athletes and the sports they played weren't considered proper subject matter."

A fan and participant

Two developments broadened the popularity of sports in Eakins' Philadelphia: increased income and leisure time among the working classes and the prominence newspapers began giving to sporting events.

While playing - and, to a lesser extent, watching - cricket, tennis and golf remained the preserve of the wealthy, street sports such as boxing and baseball increasingly were luring their own fans and participants, typically from neighborhoods crowded with new immigrants and factory workers.

Interest blossomed. The best athletes began to be paid, and spectators were willing to pay to see them.

"In the forms that Americans presently take for granted, sport came to prominence toward the end of the 19th century," historian Donald Mrozek said.

The Central High-educated son of a master writer and calligrapher, Eakins was both fan and participant.

After returning from Paris in 1870, he haunted boxing arenas, such as the Arena A.C. on the northeast corner of Broad and Cherry Streets. He walked or bicycled from his home at 1729 Mount Vernon St. to the nearby Schuylkill, where he rowed with top scullers.

He followed avidly the Athletics, first champions of America's first professional baseball league. He hunted and fished.

And he befriended sportswriters, some of whom he relied on for access and advice. When, for example, he needed a boxer for a series of paintings planned for 1898-99, he contacted Clarence Cranmer.

Cranmer is the natty timekeeper seated in the foreground of Between Rounds, his high-top shoes polished to a sheen, his derby hung on the back of his chair. He became such a close friend that after Eakins' death in 1916, he helped his widow, Susan, sell or donate many of the paintings she had kept.

One was Between Rounds, which would end up at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The massive oil-on-canvas, more than four feet tall and three feet wide, was first exhibited in 1900 at a Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts show. When no one met Eakins' $1,600 asking price, he took it home.

"His paintings mystified people," Foster said. "He painted modern people doing modern things. He painted athletes. He was trying to be innovative. People just didn't understand why he would want to paint boxers."

Invigorated by boxing

Even though the city's elite viewed the sport as one step above street crime, boxing was wildly popular in Victorian Philadelphia. Nowhere in the country were purses higher. There were, according to The Ring magazine, 14 city fight clubs in 1900. The Arena, transformed into the Adelphia Theater a decade or so later, was built in 1895.

By 1898, Eakins, 54, seemed past his most creative years. The Champion Single Sculls had been painted in 1870. The Gross Clinic came five years after that. But, Foster said, the boxing concept invigorated him.

At the illuminated center of Between Rounds is "Turkey Point" Billy Smith, the boxer Cranmer had suggested. A journeyman featherweight, Smith grew up in Southwark. To distinguish him from another pugilist, "Mysterious" Billy Smith, a Chicago promoter nicknamed him "Turkey Point," for a tough neighborhood in that city.

"I wasn't a big guy, but I was broad-shouldered and had well-developed muscles," Smith said in a 1955 interview with the Philadelphia Bulletin, "so Mr. Eakins picked me out."

The 115-pound Smith posed often in Eakins' Chestnut Street studio in 1898. He appears in Taking the Count and Salutat, two other boxing-related paintings produced in the painter's last creative burst.

In Between Rounds, Smith wears an unconcerned expression. He also wears one of the sumolike thongs that passed for trunks, leather boxing shoes, and Pete Maravich-like saggy socks.

His gloves seem skimpy by modern standards. It was only a few decades earlier that the use of padded leather gloves had been mandated in the hitherto bare-knuckles sport.

A cut lemon sits beside the water bucket in Smith's corner, where the resting fighter is simultaneously being advised by his trainer and cooled by a waving towel.

A first-row perspective

The towel man is Billy McCarney. McCarney would become a renowned promoter and the manager of heavyweight champion Max Schmeling. Asked a half-century later about the accuracy of Between Rounds, McCarney said, "It was pretty much that way."

The trainer was Ellwood McCloskey, a native Pennsylvanian and a fighter Eakins knew well. Nicknamed "The Old War Horse," McCloskey had lost an eye in an 1889 industrial accident but continued to fight until 1902. He then wrote a boxing guide for the blind and opened a Fairmount Avenue cigar store.

The moment Eakins captured on that Friday night, according to a card hanging from the press box, is either before or after Round 2. Smith would lose the six-rounder, by decision, to Tim Callahan, another Philadelphia fighter.

Smith estimated he'd probably earned $2.50 for the fight. Philadelphia boxers, he said, often fought more than once a night, traveling from place to place by streetcar.

According to the poster draped from the Arena's second deck, Smith-Callahan was the last bout on a card whose feature was an attractive matchup between an African American, Joe "the Barbados Demon" Wolcott, and ex-middleweight champion Tommy West. That night, those two battled to a no-decision.

In the press box, five sportswriters scribble their impressions, though that must have been difficult for the reporter on the far right. His feet appear to be on the railing, his hat pulled over his eyes. One of those writers could have been another Eakins friend, Walter Schlichter of the Philadelphia Item.

"Although it shows an actual night of boxing, Eakins actually posed most of those you see in the painting," Foster said. "While we know the timekeeper is Cranmer, for example, we don't know if he actually served that function."

The Arena more closely resembles a theater than a 21st-century athletic arena. That impression is bolstered by the side-by-side posters above Smith's corner. They promote nonsporting entertainment coming to the venue.

"The perspective Eakins wanted to give the viewer was from the first row," Foster said.

Eakins shows us only two levels of seats. Cranmer is cordoned off by ropes, which might suggest the facility had wraparound seating.

The crowd is an interesting collection of fans in beards, hats and, in the first row, even a military uniform. Not surprisingly, all are men. Boxing was off-limits to Victorian females.

According to contemporary ticket stubs in the Philadelphia museum's collection, fans paid $3 for box seats or "reserved chairs." That was a sizable sum at a time when an industrial worker's average annual income was about $500.

Smith wouldn't fight much longer. In 1899, Samuel Murray, an Eakins student, used him as a model for a bronze sculpture. He soon underwent a religious conversion, becoming a Salvation Army evangelist. Later in life, he was the University of Pennsylvania's athletic groundskeeper.

"Mr. Eakins to me was a Gentleman and an Artist, and a Realist of Realists," Smith wrote in a letter near the end of his life. "In his work he would not add or subtract. I recall, while painting the portrate [sic], I noticed a dark smear across my upper lip. I asked Mr. Eakins what it was. He said it was my mustache. I wanted it off. He said it was there, and there it stayed."

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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