Hirshhorn Museum Will Auction Off Three Paintings by Thomas Eakins

The Hirshhorn will sell three of its paintings by Thomas Eakins, including this study for
The Hirshhorn will sell three of its paintings by Thomas Eakins, including this study for "Portrait of Mrs. Charles L. Leonard." (Courtesy Of Christie's)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has decided to auction three paintings by Thomas Eakins, the 19th-century American artist, to raise money for its acquisition fund.

The works, which are being sold by Christie's in a public sale May 20, have been culled from the 220 pieces by Eakins in the museum's collection. The three have not been exhibited at the Hirshhorn since a survey of the artist's work in 1977.

The paintings are a study for "Portrait of Mrs. Charles L. Leonard," a study for "William Rush and His Model" and a portrait of Robert C. Ogden.

Valerie Fletcher, a senior curator for the Hirshhorn, said the decision was based on a survey that took place from 2005 to 2007. "With a major artist and a large collection, you assess how other people see your collection, such as how many are borrowed over the years, what works are on view . . . what is its condition," said Fletcher. Another consideration, she added, is whether a painting has been written about in reference works or surveys of Eakins's art.

Joseph Hirshhorn, an American industrialist and philanthropist, gave the Smithsonian hundreds of paintings, and the collection became the basis of the museum, which opened in 1974. In his initial gift in 1966 and later in his will, Hirshhorn stipulated that the museum could sell work if the proceeds went to acquire new pieces. That approach complies with the policies of the American Association of Museums.

The museum's collection of Eakins, who died in 1916, includes paintings on canvas, sculptures, drawings and photographs, and a retrospective of his work was one of its earliest shows.

Anchored in realism, Eakins's paintings have been hot commodities in the past. In 2006 the National Gallery of Art and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art offered to pay $68 million for "The Gross Clinic," a masterwork by the artist. The painting had been exhibited in Philadelphia since 1875, and the bid to buy it set off an uproar. The arts and business community rallied to keep the painting in the artist's home town.

In deciding whether to remove a work from the collection, Fletcher said, the curators consider the subject matter, especially if there is duplication, as well as composition and size. "The 'Ogden' is the largest full painting we have by Eakins, but it is very static. It was a portrait that was commissioned at the time Eakins needed money. It doesn't have the passion of some of his other work," she said.

The nude study for "William Rush" is similar to one in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "Theirs is better, so there was redundancy," Fletcher said.

Eakins's work is an essential part of almost every major American museum's collection. It is included in the holdings of the National Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Christie's is auctioning 142 objects on May 20 and has estimated that the individual Eakins paintings could garner $80,000 to $600,000. Last year, two Eakins paintings were auctioned by Sotheby's, one for $1.2 million, another for $1.9 million.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company