Happy Birthday, Eakins!

July 22, 2010

This Sunday, we will be opening a new exhibition, Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins. That day, the July 25, also happens to be Eakins’s birthday. Eakins is no longer with us (he would be 166), but his art is a good stand-in.


Unknown, “Eakins, in the Chestnut St. Studio, Three-Quarter View,” c. 1891, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Charles Bregler’s Thomas Eakins Collection. Purchased with the partial support of the Pew Memorial Trust, 1985.68.2.581

The opening of the exhibition, which concentrates on Eakins’s depictions of the modern heroes of American life, the athletes of the late nineteenth century, is especially eventful for me not just because I organized the show. Eakins and I shared significant backgrounds. We were both born and raised in Philadelphia. Also, the art bug and the “City of Brotherly Love” were strongly ingrained in both of our psyches. Eakins’s also was a significant force in determining my profession. As a child I began going regularly to the Philadelphia Art Museum, which has the largest collection of Eakins art and archives. You see, my father loved art and history and for vacations he would take my mother, my sister Tina, and me on automobile excursions up and down the East Coast to visit historic houses and museums. As a result Tina became an artist and history buff and I became an art curator. It was Eakins who determined my focus on American art, as the first memory I have of visiting the Philadelphia Museum was to see a display of perspective drawings that Eakins created as preparatory work for his rowing paintings. I can still remember the gallery full of those large studies.  They are meticulous pencil and ink drawings that will amaze you. And you now can see them for yourself as several are on view in Manly Pursuits at LACMA.

The exhibition will only be shown in Los Angeles. So why don’t you go visit the Eakins exhibition on July 25, enjoy the rowers, the men skinny dipping, the equestrian riders, the bicyclists, boxers, and wrestlers, and then walk across the museum plaza to Pentimento and celebrate good old Tom’s birthday  with a sweet dessert and bubbly, and sing “Happy Birthday” to him. I know that’s what I plan to do on Sunday!

Ilene Susan Fort, Curator