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Whither the Wrestlers

From: American Quarterly
Volume 62, Number 2, June 2010
pp. 395-402 | 10.1353/aq.0.0139

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Note from the editor: Event reviews are usually written from the perspective of an audience member and a critic. In this contribution, Ilene Susan Fort, the Gail and John Liebes Curator of American Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, writes from behind the scenes. In July 2010, LACMA will feature Thomas Eakins's "athletic" works in an exhibition of the Philadelphia artist's paintings, drawings, and photographs depicting rowers, boxers, wrestlers, and bodies in motion. At the center of this display is a recent acquisition by the museum, Eakins's Wrestlers (1899). This painting is arguably the museum's most important addition in decades. As interesting as the painting is, it is not without controversy and has held an uneasy place within the institutions that have housed it. In addition, as Fort points out, at about the time of LACMA's acquisition of Wrestlers, the deaccessioning of Eakins's The Gross Clinic (1875) by the Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia and the threat of its removal from the region with which it is identified made national headlines and sparked a public debate regarding patrimony. In contrast, no one made much of Wrestlers' move to California. As Fort explains, the painting is in fact the most frequently acquired and deaccessioned of Eakins's major works. We invited Fort to narrate the processes that led to the displacement of a major painting from one coast to another, and also to shed light on why this painting has had such a nomadic life. In doing so, she makes a case for the painting's relevance to LACMA's collection and to the community served by the museum.

—Jennifer Doyle

Recently the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) acquired the large, final version of Thomas Eakins's Wrestlers (1899). It was bought by a generous donor who had expressed interest in giving the museum a Hopper or similarly strong realist painting. Many aspects of Wrestlers confirmed the appropriateness of the acquisition. First of all, the museum already owned the small oil study that Eakins had used in preparation for the large-scale canvas. In fact, it was LACMA's only Eakins, having been acquired by its first major donor, William Preston Harrison, who bequeathed it to the museum after its appearance in a 1927 West Coast traveling Eakins exhibition.1 Secondly, Wrestlers fit in well with the core of the museum's collection, which is strong in late-nineteenth-century Salon figure paintings and Ash Can canvases.

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Figure 1. 

Thomas Eakins, Wrestlers. Oil on canvas, 48 3/8 X 60 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Cecile C. Bartman and the Cecile and Fred Bartman Foundation. Photograph c 2010 Museum Associates/LACMA, courtesy Art Resource, New York.

All but ignored during his lifetime, the realist figure painter Thomas Eakins is now deemed one of the icons of nineteenth-century U.S. art. Yet the announcement of LACMA's new purchase was overshadowed by the latest chapter in the saga of Eakins's most controversial painting, the medical drama, The Gross Clinic. With the extreme economic downturn that has had a strong impact on the country's museum landscape, art has become even more of a commodity than it has always been. The decision of Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia to sell Eakins's The Gross Clinic because of its dwindling endowment, as well as a similar choice by the National Academy Museum (formerly the National Academy of Design) to sell Hudson River School paintings to pay bills, resulted in uproars in the press and professional arena.2 Yet, there was no comment about Wrestlers, even though it had been sold by not one, but two art institutions before its purchase by a third. In the institutional world where deaccessioning is sometimes scrutinized, why had Wrestlers been repeatedly discarded without rousing significant comment? And why did LACMA deem it worthy of purchase?

Wrestlers is an extraordinary painting that clearly demonstrates many of the theoretical concepts that initially made Eakins's paintings controversial and that still cause many historians to deconstruct and reconstruct the painter's art and biography. Moreover, its provenance demonstrates some of...