'Wrestlers' finds home at LACMA

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has acquired Thomas Eakins' "Wrestlers," a large-scale sporting painting created by the American realist in 1899, the museum announced Thursday.

Michael Govan, LACMA's director and chief executive, called the painting "one of the most significant acquisitions the museum has ever made.

"It's a turn-of-the-last century piece, and here we are at another century," Govan said in an interview. "There are very few subject pictures like this by Eakins on the West Coast; they almost don't exist. So it's a super-rare and fantastic gift to California and the West. We're super-excited about it.

"It's like the best holiday gift you could get."

Govan called the acquisition "all the more poignant" because Eakins' preparatory sketch for the painting is already part of LACMA's permanent collection.

"Wrestlers" is the gift of Cecile C. Bartman and the Cecile and Fred Bartman Foundation. Cecile Bartman, Govan said, began her association with the museum as a docent years ago.

Govan would not reveal the monetary value of the painting. Although the acquisition was announced Thursday, he said that the oil on canvas, 62 by 72 inches, is already on view to the public in the museum's Gallery of American Art.

According to LACMA, the work is one of the last major subject paintings by Eakins (1844-1916). Sports represents a significant theme for the artist, a student of the human figure and painter of psychological depth. Among similarly themed works were rowing pictures from the 1870s and boxing and wrestling paintings made later in his career.

Some art historians have offered the opinion that there is a homoerotic quality to many of Eakins' sports paintings. Govan said that such commentary has only added to the intrigue. "The work is about many things," he said. "It's also about the life of the artist and about teaching -- in the painting, the wrestler is being taught. It's an everyday subject, right in your face -- a great American painting."

Another painting by Eakins has been in the news in recent months. Public outcry was sparked in November when it was announced that Eakins' 1875 work "The Gross Clinic," considered the artist's greatest, would be sold by Thomas Jefferson University to a partnership of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and a museum in Arkansas being built by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton.

The university had given local institutions until next Tuesday to come up with a matching offer, sending leaders in Philadelphia's art, business and political communities scrambling to raise $68 million to keep the masterwork in Philadelphia.

On Thursday, however, it appeared that enough money had been raised to keep the painting in Philadelphia, Eakins' hometown. According to the Associated Press, nearly $30 million has been raised and the promise of bank loans will allow "The Gross Clinic" to be purchased jointly by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art and exhibited by both.

Philadelphia Museum of Art officials could not be reached by The Times for comment by press time.

Govan noted that LACMA curators and the donor of "Wrestlers" began their discussions long before the uproar arose over "The Gross Clinic." The controversy, he said, "is another sign that this is an artist people care deeply about."

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