Manly Pursuits: the Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins
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Thomas Eakins, one of the most famous American painters of the 19th century, is best known today as a portraitist.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) looks to challenge this categorisation with an exhibition that focuses on his paintings of athletic activities, which first helped him establish a reputation as a realist.
Eakins trained in Paris under Jean-Léon Gérôme, but, on returning home to Philadelphia in 1870, he began to paint typically American subjects.
Between 1871 and 1899, he became the first artist to explore the theme of sporting activities beyond the illustrations that accompanied newspaper coverage of sporting events.
Sport had come to epitomise modern life in late 18th-century America. An increase in wealth and leisure time for the middle classes had allowed more time for such pursuits, and sports satisfied a demand for a healthier lifestyle.
Spectator sports offered entertainment in America’s fast growing cities, while giving the opportunity for financial advancement to the lower classes.
The exhibition documents this growth of interest in both amateur and professional sports with Eakins’ depictions of rowing, hunting, sailing, equestrian pursuits, bicycling, boxing and wrestling.
The impetus for “Manly Pursuits” was LACMA’s acquisition of Wrestlers, 1899, in late 2006. As curator Ilene Fort explained: “The museum already owned the small oil sketch for the large canvas, and the exhibition provides an opportunity to exhibit both images, along with a third version, perhaps for the first time ever.” There has not been an exhibition of Eakins’ work in southern California since 1927 and none on the entire West Coast since the 1940s: “I thought it was time for a major Eakins exhibition here, because while many Eakins exhibitions have been organised during the past 15 years, none came here.” From there, the decision to focus on athletics was easy, said Fort, “since Wrestlers was the last such image that Eakins created and he helped originate sporting imagery in the fine arts in the US.
Yet no one has ever organised an exhibition focusing solely on his sporting images, even though many of them had long been considered as exemplifying Yankee spirit.”
The exhibition is organised by types of sports, with the galleries for wrestling, swimming, bicycling and boxing, and also showing the photographs Eakins took of athletes for reference and anatomical studies.
Drawings are interspersed throughout the galleries, allowing visitors to trace Eakins’ progress towards the scientific realism for which he strove.
Fort said she hopes west coast viewers will learn that Eakins was one of the finest artists of the 19th century and discover his varied interests in art and science, as well as his experiments with photography.
Fort said that the primary aims of the exhibition, however, are for the viewers to realise that “the fine arts and athletics are not mutually exclusive and Americans share many of the same interests that they did a century ago”.