Art and the Pro-Am Divide

The Biglin Brothers Racing, Thomas Eakins, 1872. National Gallery of Art/Public Domain.

By Chris Dodd

29 July 2021

An invitation from the Smithsonian magazine to review an exhibition of Thomas Eakins’s rowing pictures in 1996 set Bill Lanouette on a quest to dig into the history of rowing in mid-nineteenth century America. The result is The Triumph of the Amateurs, an entertaining volume packed with detail on the rise, ruin and banishment of professional rowing in the Gilded Age.

I was fortunate to see that exhibition – the only occasion when all of Eakins’s rowing pictures have hung out together – and appreciate what a master of detail is the artist who studied anatomy at medical school and art at Pennsylvania Academy before attending the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Eakins grew up in Philadelphia close to Boathouse Row and joined Pennsylvania Barge Club on the Schuylkill. His depictions of the amateur champion Max Schmitt and the professional Biglin brothers are steeped in detail, all the way down to the light and shadow of the captured hour of the day. His sketches, watercolours and oils fused dedication, precision and stamina to capture the egalitarian spirit of America. 

The Ward Brothers, “The Champion Oarsmen of the World”, 1871.

What Eakins achieved with his brush, Lanouette has achieved with his pen. The Triumph of the Amateurs takes a journey through the world of professionals such as the rival families of Biglins and the Wards, the battles between Ned Hanlan and Charles Courtney whose matches were controversial to say the least, and amateurs like Schmitt who is the subject of Eakins’s most famous painting. 

The book visits innovative boat builders’ yards, lakes and rivers where regattas and races thrived, and colleges where professionals – many of whom were cheats and rogues in a culture of ‘winner takes all’ and side betting that made and lost fortunes – were employed as coaches. Everyone from vagrants to Vanderbilts followed America’s most popular sport in the 1870s, a sport plagued by dodgy promoters, dodgy bookies, dodgy competitors and drunken crowds. To quote Lanouette’s intro, ‘Now long forgotten, professional rowing was the most popular and lucrative sport in America’s Gilded Age following the Civil War. It thrived until destroyed by betting scandals’. 

Six-oared boat racing on the Charles in Boston, 1858. “The Harvard” wins.

The book has three parts. The first covers rowing through the ages, rivalry in Boston between the toffs of Harvard and numerous clubs of Irish immigrants who worked the port; betting and cheating; women, minorities and ‘a few good oarsmen of color’ in boats, including Harlem hijinks and Monongahela Maids; regattas on the Schuylkill. 

The second follows the Biglin brothers as competitors, coaches, curmudgeons, champions and conspirators over territory extending to St John and Halifax Nova Scotia, plus political baggage and corrupt politicians. 

Part three covers three disgraceful meetings between Courtney and Hanlan, the ruin of professional rowing and the rise of amateur, and the substantial presence of the sport in popular culture – novels, boys adventure stories, magazines and classics. 

Hanlan v Courtney, 1880.

Thus, Lanouette’s book works both as a romp from end to end or profitable cherry-picking. It’s an easy read despite being stacked with academic detail. Over the years I have made a similar voyage in Britain, where there is a parallel story of rowing as amateurs took it up from the watermen of ports and rivers such as the Thames and Tyne who made their living at the oar, pursued technical innovations like the inboard keel, outrigger, slide and swivel. Professional rowing there died out for similar reasons – cheating by toothpicks in collars, rusty razor blades between planks, sawn through oar looms, nobbling of steerers… 

The Race Between the Sho-Wae-Cae-Mettes and the Atlantas, 1878.

But in Lanouette I found how large was the extent of rowing in America during the post-Civil War period (boosted greatly in colleges by the Oxford versus Harvard race from Putney to Mortlake in 1869). I learned that ‘hippodroming’ means a conspiracy of competitors to fashion close races to boost betting.

I learned where rowing was to be found on the Charles and the Schuylkill, the Hudson and Potomac, the Harlem and East rivers and on Baltimore, Pittsburgh and New Haven waters. And an appendix on Eakins told me much about something that Britain did not have – a master artist to depict the Gilded Age of rowing for eternity.

The Seventh Annual Regatta of the Mississippi Valley Amateur Rowing Association, 1884.

One mystery about Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins remains. Although he was studying in Paris for four years from 1866, I have never found a reference to his presence at the international regatta there in 1867. This two-day bonanza on the Seine attracted crews from Canada, Britain and many parts of Europe and would surely have attracted an artist with a love of rowing. I can only surmise that the young Eakins was out of town in the summer of 1867 – possibly in Spain where he was known to have spent some time.

William Lanouette, The Triumph of the Amateurs: The Rise, Ruin, and Banishment of Professional Rowing in the Gilded Age, Lyons Press, 2021. 

See also Göran R Buckhorn’s interview with Bill Lanouette posted on HTBS on 1 April and Bill Miller’s article about The Triumph of the Amateurs posted on 23 April. An extract from The Triumph of the Amateurs about John Biglin and Ellis Ward, members of the two most famous families in American professional rowing, was also published on HTBS.

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