This past March, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia announced that it was selling five paintings by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), whose unsparing realism and unorthodox methods scandalized his peers and set a new standard for succeeding generations of artists. The sale of these clergy portraits, which can be seen below, is intended to raise funds for a campus reconstruction project in a time of declining vocations and financial constraints, has become part of a broader conversation over the propriety of viewing art as a commercial asset.
Officials from the seminary and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which owns the school, say that the school’s primary duty is to educate men who are pursuing a call to ministry — not to be a museum. But beyond the debate over the Christie’s private sale is a tantalizing glimpse into a time long past — a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century world in which scientists, industrialists, and religious leaders found common cause in the exchange of ideas and a shared faith in the power of human progress.
Eakins was banned in certain nineteenth-century artistic circles for his scientific attention to detail (which sometimes involved nudity) and his passion for venturing well beyond the bounds of what was then considered fit for polite society. The details of his life are still a hot topic among scholars, and Eakins is considered “the quintessential Philadelphia painter,” according to University of Pennsylvania art historian David Brownlee. The projected 2006 sale of a legendary Eakins work, “The Gross Clinic,” by the Thomas Jefferson University medical school to buyers outside the city aroused such an uproar that in 2008 the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts jointly raised the funds to keep that painting in Philadelphia.
While Eakins was born to Quaker parents, experts suggest that the painter, sculptor, and photographer was not a devout man. In that case, why did he spend so much time in the company of Roman Catholic clergy?
“I think he was a typical Protestant of his age, fascinated with Catholicism and struggling with how to reconcile advances in science with respect to faith,” said Kristin Schwain, a professor of art history at Missouri State University and the author of Signs of Grace: Religion and American Art in the Gilded Age.
Eakins was “fascinated by the questions, by the traditions, by the intellectual weight of tradition,” she said. “I think he was probably agnostic, but that’s not to say that he didn’t have a sense of the sublime.”
Eakins and his friends at the seminary shared the idea that art is a way of incarnating the past and of giving its subjects an afterlife — even if a secular one.
Eakins and his friend and fellow artist Samuel Murray would frequently bicycle out to the seminary in time for Vespers, the evening prayer service, after visiting Murray’s sister, a nun who lived nearby, according to Cait Kokolus, the seminary vice president charged with curating the works.
She speculates that perhaps Eakins, who had studied in Europe and whose sometime-use of nude models had embroiled him in controversy, found some kinship with Catholic clergy, who, like himself, were not accepted in the society of that time.
David Brigham, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts president and CEO, doesn’t think Eakins’ relationship with Catholic clergy signified a spiritual quest. Rather, “it was an intellectual quest . . . Eakins enjoyed spending time with interesting, intelligent, innovative people.”
Brownlee, an architectural historian who has extensively studied Philadelphia’s nineteenth-century society, says he doesn’t know if Eakins was an atheist or an agnostic, but describes him as a “very scientific-minded man, fascinated by nature, by the real physical world.”
Given Eakins’ “humane realism,” Brownlee said, it would not have surprised him at all if the artist sought out the most enlightened and intelligent intellectuals of his time, among whom many of the seminary clergy would have been numbered.
“Philadelphia in the nineteenth-century was remarkably egalitarian, progressive,lo and forward-looking,” said Brownlee. Both the government and the Catholic Church were working in parallel spheres, public and parochial, to make education and medical care available to all. Even if Eakins was shunned in some quarters, it didn’t get in the way of most things he wanted to do.
“A bit of an outcast status always adds to the reputation of an artist,” Brownlee said, “and suggests that his work was cutting-edge enough that it caused some people to be uncomfortable.”
Kristin Schwain says she recognizes that the seminary doesn’t have the resources to care for the paintings, but she is concerned about what may happen if private collectors purchase them. Given Eakin’s lack of adherence to a faith tradition, it’s too easy to dismiss the importance of his works to his life and to the history of art, she says.
“The problem is that they have never been incorporated in the Eakins story,” Schwain said. “Religion is more than a belief system . . . people can be intellectually engaged, but not believe.” While Eakins didn’t believe, he respected those who did.
Kokolus agues that “the seminary doesn’t have the financial resources to protect and conserve these paintings as they demand to be conserved.” His paintings were formerly hung in the institution’s Eakins Room, where they were available for public viewing during an annual tour and at other times to art scholars.
In an attempt to consolidate in a time of shrinking enrollment and unused space, the school is also in the process of selling off the bottom half of its suburban campus in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.
In another twist, descendants of Monsignor Patrick Garvey, a church leader Eakins painted, came forward after sale plans were made public to claim that the portrait of Garvey had merely been loaned to the seminary and should not be sold.
“The seminary’s position on the ownership of the portrait of Monsignor Garvey by Thomas Eakins remains unwavering. No contrary evidence has ever been presented,” wrote archdiocesan communications director Kenneth Gavin in a statement. “We see no impediment to proceeding with the planned sale through Christie’s.”
Both Kokolus and Gavin said that the seminary contacted local museums and art institutions to see if there was local interest in purchasing the paintings. While the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) would welcome them into their collection, they weren’t able to pursue purchasing the works, said Brigham.
Though there will be no restrictions on the sale of the paintings, the plan is to market Eakins’ works to museums, said Elizabeth Beaman, a senior American art specialist at Christie’s, particularly ones that don’t already have an Eakins painting in their collection.
“Eakins is such an important artist in the canon (of American art) that many museums view his work as a touchstone,” said Beaman.
Image via Montgomery County Planning Commission.