National Academy deaccession went to LACMA
"Wrestlers," 1899, oil on canvas, 48 3/8 by 60 inches
Today, the New York Times identified in passing a painting deaccessioned by the National Academy Museum in the 1970s -- the first of three times the academy has sold off art from its collection. Its loss was, after a long and circuitous route, the gain of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
LACMA last year acquired Thomas Eakins' terrific 1899 painting, "Wrestlers," as a gift from the Cecile and Fred Bartman Foundation. I called Illene Susan Fort, senior curator of American art at the museum, and she confirmed that it's the same painting. She also said something surprising: "It's a painting that has been deaccessioned not once before but twice."
Eakins painted the work for the National Academy as his so-called "diploma painting," when he was inducted into membership. Seven decades later, the academy sold it to raise funds for conservation of its paintings collection. (Fort didn't know whether the conservation work had ever been carried out.) A bustling market for 19th century American art had only emerged in the 1960s, and a picture by arguably the century's best painter was valuable enough to raise a significant amount of money.
The Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio bought it. Then, in 2005, Columbus sold it to buy a collection of American Regionalist and Surrealist paintings from the 1930s, which made a better fit with its early American Modernist paintings. (The museum owns another Eakins, an 1891 portrait of singer Weda Cook.) Unlike the National Academy, which required the sale be made to a museum, Columbus sold it on the open market.
Adelson Galleries in New York bought it, then sold it to a private collector. Not long after, Adelson bought it back -- and that's when LACMA came into play. Cecile Bartman, a longtime docent, made the purchase possible. LACMA has owned the oil sketch for the painting since 1927 when the museum was in Exposition Park -- another study is in the Philadelphia Art Museum -- and the two now have been happily reunited on Wilshire Boulevard.
In the fall of 2010, "Wrestlers" will be the late-career star of an exhibition Fort is preparing on the subject of Eakins' sporting paintings. I've got a feeling that its deaccession days are over.
-- Christopher Knight
Photo: Los Angeles County Museum of Art