The paintings, drawings, watercolors, and photographs documenting Thomas Eakins’s lifelong attraction to sports, physical fitness, recreational activities, and spectator events were once accepted as celebrations of the healthy and strenuous pursuits available to late-19th-century American men. Today, however, the sporting pictures, particularly the later ones, are more likely to be considered as vortices of Eakins’s conflicted sexuality, professional ambitions, and emotional disappointments. About 30 of them will be united for the first time in the exhibition “Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins,” which will be at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from July 25 through October 17.
The inspiration for the exhibition was Wrestlers (1899), a scene in which one man has pinned another to the ground. LACMA acquired the painting in 2006, after it had been deaccessioned by two other institutions. Ilene Susan Fort, the museum’s senior curator of American art, borrowed other canonical works that celebrate male athleticism, as well as the male camaraderie that comes from hunting, rowing, swimming, and boxing, including The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull), The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake, and Swimming. To these she has added photographs taken by Eakins and his circle that were not publicly available until the 1980s. Some feature scientific studies of animals in motion; other are images of athletes taking part in track-and-field sports. More provocative are those of Eakins and his students in the nude— boxing, posing, or simply relaxing—which record the artist’s fascination with the human figure and his intimacy with his male pupils.
The inclusion of the photographs reflects the volatile and vastly changed attitudes toward Eakins, one of the most revered figures in American art, over the century since his death, in 1916. In the ’20s and especially after the 1933 publication of Lloyd Goodrich’s pioneering biography of the artist, Eakins was exalted as a blameless hero, unjustly ostracized by society and neglected by art officialdom. The perception of him as a man more sinned against than sinning prevailed until 1985, when personal photographs and other materials from Eakins’s archives preserved by his friend Charles Bregler were acquired by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and made accessible to researchers. As a result, a different appraisal of Eakins emerged, in which he was a principal actor in his own misfortunes.
In 2005 the art historian Henry Adams published Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist, a study devoted to debunking reigning opinions and writings on the artist, particularly Goodrich’s. Adams emphasized Eakins’s coarseness and brutality and laid out a case for him as an exhibitionist and possible committer of incest. But even Adams does not dispute the emotional force or significance of the paintings. (No matter how different their approach, all writers on Eakins conclude that traumatic events in the artist’s personal life are encoded in his work.) Nevertheless, questions about Eakins’s once-sacred moral position and debates over masculinity and sexual tension in his life and career have renewed Eakins studies. The field, once thought exhausted, is a hot spot of American scholarship.
In March 1902, Eakins was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design; as a requirement for associate membership, he submitted a self-portrait—the searching image that remains one of the cornerstones of the academy’s permanent collection. In May 1902, he became a full academician and had to offer another picture to the institution as his diploma painting. His choice was Wrestlers.
Fort, who sees the canvas as a symbolic self-portrait that reveals the artist’s manifold struggles, speculates that Eakins selected it for its “in-your-face” quality. The lower-class protagonists of Wrestlers would have been at odds with the more genteel subjects that most academy members preferred, and perhaps Eakins was irked at the academy because his election, and the honor it represented, was absurdly belated.
Confronting the academy with potentially embarrassing subject matter may have motivated Eakins to submit Wrestlers, but it is also possible that he in fact considered the painting an appropriate gift because it represented his signature passion for anatomy and his interest in athletic competition.
Whereas the Eakins self-portrait was highlighted as one of the splendors of the academy’s collection, frequently shown and lent, the institution was not as appreciative of Wrestlers, and almost never publicized or displayed it. In the late ’60s, when the academy needed money to mount a large exhibition, it sold Wrestlers. The market for 19th-century American art was on the rise, and Eakins was securely enthroned as a colossus of American painting. The picture was bought by the Columbus Museum of Art (then the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts) in 1970, in an acquisition spearheaded by its director, Mahonri Sharp Young, a specialist in American realism.
After Young’s retirement, in 1976, the painting spent increasing time in storage. A few years after Young’s death, in 1996, the museum deaccessioned Wrestlers. It was sold to a private collector, who kept it briefly before putting it back on the market. A donor bought it for LACMA in 2006.
The acquisition of Wrestlers eliminated a serious gap in LACMA’s American holdings, because the museum had no substantial work by Eakins. Wrestlers was Eakins’s last completed genre painting, his last consideration of the male nude, and his last sporting picture. Moreover, the museum has owned a preliminary oil sketch for Wrestlerssince 1948.
“Somehow I feel that the painting was destined for us,” Ilene Fort muses. “I’m from Philadelphia, so I grew up with Eakins pictures. Having Wrestlershere, I feel as if I’ve come home.”
Avis Berman is a writer and art historian living in New York.