Frederick B. and Kate L. Shoemaker Fund, 1974.49
The turn of the century brought millions of working-class young men—many of them immigrants—to New York City in search of jobs and better lives. River swimming was a common escape from the sweltering summers and cramped tenement life for these men. Bellows sets up his viewers as voyeurs of this all-male social event (though look closely and you’ll find a few female figures), packing the print full of bodies, many of which are nude or nearly so. Turning private acts, such as bathing, into public events become a theme of Bellows in his depictions of the new New York.
Changing concepts of masculinity—wrapped up in racial and ethnic tensions—informed images of robust male nudity, veering from the more genteel, Victorian picture of manhood. Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt championed the assertion of masculinity through a strong, athletic body. In addition, Bellows’ image references an increasingly homoerotic subtext to male relationships in working-class New York neighborhoods, where there were many more young men than young women.