Portrait of a Man
pt. 25

Manly Pursuits:
Thomas Eakins

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July 25, 1844 – June 25, 1916


“I never knew of but one artist, and this is Tom Eakins,
who could resist the temptation to see what they think ought to be rather than what is.”

– Walt Whitman


Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins ,
July 25, 2010–October 17, 2010

Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins celebrates LACMA's 2007 acquisition of Eakins's great sporting painting, Wrestlers, 1899. The exhibition will examine the work in a broad thematic context, providing a rare opportunity to consider the history of sporting images in the oeuvre of this icon of American nineteenth-century art. While his rowing paintings and swimming images were each the focus of special exhibitions, no show has ever been devoted to the varied array of sporting images Eakins depicted. Moreover, while Eakins exhibitions have been increasingly frequent on the East Coast, they have been rare at West Coast venues. Manly Pursuits will trace Los Angeles's long but little known association with Eakins's art.

Since the 1990s, Eakins has emerged as a major figure in sexuality studies in art history, for both the homoeroticism of his male nudes and for the complexity of his attitudes toward women. Controversy shaped much of his career as a teacher and as an artist. He insisted on teaching men and women "the same", used nude male models in female classes and vice versa, and was accused of abusing female students.

Recent scholarship suggests that these controversies were grounded in more than the "puritanical prudery" of his colleagues (as had been assumed). All the known evidence in the scandals in his life involved heterosexual behavior, so the thesis that he was a latent homosexual or bisexual remains compelling, but unsupported. Today, scholars see these controversies as caused by a combination of factors such as the bohemianism of Eakins and his circle (in which students, for example, sometimes modeled in the nude for each other), the intensity of his friendships with men, including Samuel Murray, and Eakins's inclination toward provocative behavior.

Robert Henri writes:

"Thomas Eakins was a man of great character. He was a man of iron will and his will to paint and to carry out his life as he thought it should go. This he did. It cost him heavily but in his works we have the precious result of his independence, his generous heart and his big mind. Eakins was a deep student of life, and with a great love he studied humanity frankly. He was not afraid of what his study revealed to him.

In the matter of ways and means of expression, the science of technique, he studied most profoundly, as only a great master would have the will to study. His vision was not touched by fashion. He struggled to apprehend the constructive force in nature and to employ in his works the principles found. His quality was honesty. "Integrity" is the word which seems best to fit him. Personally I consider him the greatest portrait painter America has produced."

Portrait of a Man
pt. 25

Manly Pursuits:
Thomas Eakins

See all the
Portraits of Man series