“Manly Pursuits”—Thomas Eakins at LACMA

Editor’s Note: Nancy Ewart, whose posts appear on ChezNamasteNancy and Examiner.com, is a guest contributor at Venetian Red. Today she comments on “Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Thomas Eakins, Wrestlers, 1899
Oil on canvas, 62 x 72 in.,
(Courtesy LACMA; gift of Cecile C. Bartman and The Cecile and Fred Bartman Foundation.

By NANCY EWART

Although Eakins is now considered one of the great masters of nineteenth-century American art, his work, surprisingly, has not been extensively exhibited on the West Coast. During his lifetime, the artist showed close to home, primarily in Philadelphia and nearby New York City. Not until the end of his life, in 1915, did he display on the West Coast, at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. After his death, Eakins’s widow, in a concerted effort to sell some of the extensive oeuvre that remained in her possession, organized traveling exhibitions of his paintings. The 1927 West Coast tour of twenty-five paintings was the first and last showing of Eakins’s paintings in Los Angeles—until now.

Although I have problems with the way the work is displayed in “Manly Pursuits”, it’s well worth the trip.  Eakins’s work doesn’t need a “steampunk” version of the rigging and ropes which were placed around the show’s advertising banners; the visual clutter detracted from the paintings. I had just viewed the Fisher Collection at SFMOMA which is organized and hung so beautifully that it sensitized me to how a show looks when it’s well.  I wouldn’t say that the Eakins show was hung badly; it just wasn’t hung well enough for a museum of LACMA’s stature. The introductory banner of John L. Sullivan was nice but it really didn’t mirror Eakins’s vision which was far darker and internal.

I also appreciate that the curators avoided any of the controversies around his sexuality. They let the works speak for themselves. A wall text—there is no catalog—attests that modern sports signaled a new economic possibility for leisure time and a novel means of class mobility. (The wrestlers have sunburned faces and hands, meaning they’re probably working-class young men.)

Thomas Eakins, The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull), 1871
Oil on canvas, 32 1/4 x 46 1/4 in.
(Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

I doubt if I will be traveling to Philadelphia any time soon where Eakins’s masterpiece, The Gross Clinic, has been restored and will be on display until 2011. The last time I was in the East Coast, all of the Eakins’s paintings that I saw were in need of serious cleaning; the 19th century varnish had darkened so much that you couldn’t see a lot of the painting through the murk. Additionally, none of his drawings or the photographs that he used were on exhibit.

So this show is a much needed look at at one of American’s genuine Old Masters. One of the things that I liked about Eakins is that his work is not controversial for the sake of being controversial; there’s no sense of “look at what I did, see how modern and transgressive and just oh-so-chic I am.” He certainly had the ego and used it, sometimes to his own detriment, but the grand standing that so often passes for talent in modern art is just not on display.

Thomas Eakins, The Swimming Hole, 1884/5
Oil on canvas, 32 1/4 x 46 1/4 in.
(Courtesy Amon Carter Museum)

Organized exclusively for LACMA by Ilene Susan Fort, the museum’s Gail and John Liebes Curator of American Art, the exhibition celebrates the museum’s acquisition of Eakins’s last great sporting painting, Wrestlers (1899)—which also happens to be one of the single most important American paintings ever acquired by LACMA. Featuring around 60 oil paintings, drawings, watercolors, photographs, and sculpture by the great American master, the exhibition serves as a rare opportunity to examine for the first time the entire range of sporting images by this iconic American artist.

“Eakins considered the body amazingly beautiful and a remarkable mechanism of movement,”  Ms. Fort has commented. “In his images from the late nineteenth-century of the athletic figure in action, Eakins created a new modern American hero; the sportsman—who can still be admired today by athletes and sports enthusiasts, as well as connoisseurs of great art.”

Thomas Eakins, Salutat, 1898
Oil on canvas, 9 ¾ in × 39 ¾ in
(Courtesy Addison Gallery of American Art)

“Manly Pursuits” is organized chronologically, from the 1870s to 1899, and thematically by type of physical endeavor:

1870s: Rowing, Sailing, Hunting and Coaching : Although sun and fresh air pervade these river scenes, Eakins recorded the races with the precision and mathematical interest of a scientist. On view with their related paintings will be the large-scale perspective drawings in which he calculated the position of boats, oars, waves and even reflections.

Eakins’ most colorful and impressionistic scene, Fairman Rogers’ Four-in-Hand was the sole example Eakins devoted to the upper middle-class activity of coaching (the art of driving horse-drawn carriages). It also was perhaps his most controversial sporting canvas since in it he attempted to depict the movement of the horses and wheels with photographic accuracy—an impulse many critics found to be at odds with the art of painting.

1880s: Swimming and Photography: Eakins devoted his sole sporting canvas of the 1880s to this subject. Swimming (1884-85) was also one of the major paintings in which he demonstrated his new interest in photography. On view will be photographs that helped Eakins compose the scene along with his scientific studies of human anatomy and posture and his experimental motion photographs.

1890s: Boxing and Wrestling:
Eakins’s last sporting images feature boxers and wrestlers and showcase the new indoor spectator sports that attracted the attention of middle and working-class enthusiasts. These paintings, some of which rank among the artist’s largest canvases, are ironically among his least known endeavors in the sporting genre.

Wider Connections

Christopher Knight (LA TImes)—interesting comparison of Eakins with Courbet
William S. McFeely—Portrait: The Life of Thomas Eakins
Sidney Kirkpatrick—The Revenge of Thomas Eakins

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5 Responses to ““Manly Pursuits”—Thomas Eakins at LACMA”

  1. Christine Says:

    Thanks Nancy. A really interesting post about an artist I know relatively little about, especially his sporting pictures. Thanks for binging them to VR.

  2. Wonderful post & accompanying art. I am familiar with his wrestling and boxing paintings and many others. I don’t think I ever made much of a connection about his sexuality tho’. I always think artists adore the human body.
    Wish I could attend all the wonderful art exhibits out there. The closest I can get to a large museum these days is Boston’s Fine Art Museum. And I still haven’t seen the Isabella Gardner. Isn’t that dumb?

  3. The sexuality issue in Eakins’s work is controversial. It steams from a 2003 biography by Henry Adams, “Eakins Revealed. The secret life of an American artist.” Professor Adams probably got tenure over this book because it’s publish or perish for academics these days. BUT – and it’s another big BUT- while I think you can make a case for the homoerotic overtones in Eakins, I am not sure that you can do much more. I remember a painting in the recent exhibit at the De Young of pieces from the Musee D’Orsay – Wrestlers by Falguiere (1875). I know nothing about this painter but his work and that of Calliabotte (who probably was homosexual) is no more erotic than Eakins’s work. Sargent is another 19th century painter with a very private private life; he did some gorgeous sketches of male nudes and some biographers have decided to call him a homosexual on no more evidence than that. Eakins was married (twice I think) and apparently had a rather difficult personality. He made friends with a much younger man who helped to take care of him until he died. Was Eakins trying to hide his homosexuality from himself as well as the world? I don’t think we will ever know but maybe our culture’s obsessive interest in artists’ private lives says more about us than it does about them.

  4. Living in the Philadelphia area, it’s hard NOT to see Eakins’s work. But the new cleaning and restoration of “The Gross Clinic” really is something to see — looks like a whole new painting. Of course, each generation of restorers/historians are sure that their version is the one that fits the artist’s vision, and unfortunately Mr. Eakins isn’t available to give his opinion. One wonders! Regardless — for anyone who’s interested, here’s the link to the site describing the latest round of fixes: http://www.philamuseum.org/research/22-398-561-450.html?page=1

  5. ian silver Says:

    i believe that i have one of the paintings it is one of a boxer holding up his hand to a crowd it is like the one above but it looks like it is drawn.

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