Art review: ‘Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins’ @ LACMA


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According to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the last exhibition of paintings by the incomparable American artist Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) held in this city took place in 1927. Organized on the 10th anniversary of Eakins’ death, the traveling show prompted Arthur Millier, The Times’ art critic, to lobby for the museum to buy his portrait of a Spanish woman, Signora Gomez d’Arza, arguing that it represented ‘the kind of selection we badly need if we are ever to have a real museum.’

L.A.’s fledgling art institution demurred. (New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art bought it instead.) But William Preston Harrison, the former Chicago real estate and press baron who was pretty much the county museum’s only art patron at the time, didn’t go away empty-handed. He bought Eakins’ small 1899 oil sketch of a pair of grappling wrestlers. After his 1940 death, it passed to the museum.


The loosely brushed sketch of two young men rassling on the floor is now installed in ‘Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins,’ a modestly scaled but nonetheless provocative show that opened Sunday at LACMA -- the museum’s (and L.A.’s) second go-round with Eakins. It is joined by the painting’s full-size study, loaned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the city were the painter lived and worked, as well as five black-and-white photographic studies of wrestlers made by Eakins and his circle, several only recently discovered.

Better still, all are in the company of ‘Wrestlers,’ the terrific finished canvas given to LACMA by L.A. collector Cecile C. Bartman in 2007. The wrestling ensemble makes a fine conclusion to ‘Manly Pursuits,’ organized by curator Ilene Susan Fort, which appears to be the only show of the much-studied artist ever to focus specifically on his sports paintings.

Why does that focus matter? Two reasons.

One is that Eakins appears to be the first major artist to show sports in more than a perfunctory way. Clearly, the subject meant something special to him.

The other is that sport wasn’t the only endeavor he proposed as a ‘manly pursuit.’ So was the very practice of painting.

After the Civil War, when Eakins’ art matured, dramatic changes were underway in American society -- changes that included an emerging identification of art, literature and religion as precincts suitable mostly for women. Feminist historian Ann Douglas famously called the shift ‘the feminization of American culture.’ Eakins’ sporting pictures, robust if reactionary, took head-on Americans’ growing discomfort with art’s changing place in society.

Eakins was a sports aficionado, and many of his works show activities he engaged in from his youth. The show’s 16 chronologically installed paintings, which span 1871 to 1899, and their 40 accompanying works on paper are grouped by sport. Rowing, the subject of his first masterpieces after returning from study in Paris, is followed by swimming, sailing, hunting, equestrian events, boxing and wrestling.

Most are competitive, but some are leisure pursuits. ‘A May Morning in the Park’ is a rather tedious depiction of a fancy coaching party featuring an Eakins patron -- the biggest stretch for contemporary notions of sports. Eakins might well have been a bit bored by the coach scene too, since he used the commission for perhaps the first systematic, mechanical analysis of how horses move.


His big, minutely detailed drawings for rowing pictures are also executed with the precision of an engineer doing drafting diagrams on a federal patent application. Later, photographs became Eakins’ primary tool in preparation for painting. With both, structural rigor creates a stark contrast with evanescent sunlight.

Eakins had learned a lot about classical figure drawing in Paris, where he worked for nearly four years with prominent academics, most importantly Jean-Léon Gérôme. By happy coincidence, the Gérôme exhibition currently at the J. Paul Getty Museum offers a perfect opportunity to see in retrospect what Eakins saw firsthand.

In addition to honed draftsmanship, he got ideas for subject matter. Then he stripped them of the fussy classical trappings of antiquity that so enthralled Gérôme.

His rowers on Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River recall Gérôme’s images of Egyptian boats on the Nile, massive railroad piers standing in for pyramids. The French painter’s idealized, Arcadian bathers turn into Eakins’ athletic young men skinny-dipping at a local pond. Gladiators at the Roman Coliseum are transformed into prizefighters at the Arena, an auditorium diagonally across the street from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Eakins taught.

Think of Eakins as a ‘post-Federalist’ painter. In democratic America, Greco-Roman principles gave fundamental support to new social ideals; Eakins pictured them without all the antique accessories.

Compare ‘Salutat,’ his Latin-titled figure study of a boxer raising his hand to acknowledge the adoring ringside crowd, to Gérôme’s ‘Thumbs Down’ at the Getty, a painting that shows a Roman gladiator looking to the bleachers for approval. Eakins chucked the ancient trappings in favor of what he -- and we -- could see going on down at a neighborhood sporting spot.


The same applies to wrestling, in paintings and photographs that put you in mind of Plato’s retreat at the Athenian academy. And he renders his figures with somber, acutely observed nobility, like something from a Parthenon frieze.

Eakins’ 1899 ‘Wrestlers’ roughly coincided with the modern revival of the Olympic games, first in Athens (1897) and then in Paris (1900); but sports pictures aren’t the only ones that zoom Classical motifs into the routines of daily American life, making for modern history paintings. ‘The Gross Clinic,’ his greatest work, casts a scalpel-wielding doctor as a cross between an Olympian god and an Old Testament prophet. (Not of course in the sporting show, ‘The Gross Clinic’ went on view Friday at the Philadelphia Museum, following an extensive conservation effort.)
Still, the show’s focus on sports is important. 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.) Those social effects are still in force today.

But Eakins also has a gender-specific idea of ‘manly’ exercise, one that is looked at with a critical eye in two concurrent LACMA installations of sports-themed photographs, by L.A. artists Catherine Opie and Tad Beck. He melds that idea with the highly skilled practice of painting, casting both sport and art as products of extensive, rigorous training. He even signs his name on the rowing pictures’ boats and the gymnasium wall in ‘Wrestlers.’

That 1927 Times review of L.A.’s prior Eakins show reflects how deep the changes in art’s social standing were. Millier noted that people then newly accustomed to prettier Impressionist paintings may wonder why the more somber Eakins was so great: ‘The answer is, in his manliness. A manly painter, like Courbet he sought to bring out with the greatest force that which seemed real to him in contemporary life.’

--Christopher Knight

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Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 857-6000, through Oct. 17. Closed Wednesday. Adults: $15.


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