Art Review

“Cowboy Singing”

Surely the biggest art news last week was the joint acquisition by the Denver Art Museum and the Anschutz Collection of "Cowboy Singing" (pictured), an 1892 painting by Thomas Eakins valued at between $5 and $8 million. In addition, the DAM has also acquired two Eakins sketches, both of which are related to his "Cowboys in the Badlands" painting from 1888. "Badlands" is already owned by the Anschutz.

A giant in American art, Eakins worked in Philadelphia and did only a handful of Western-themed pieces. He is much better known for his realist portraits and scenes of athletics, like rowing and diving, in which the subjects were young men, some of whom were his students at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Paintings such as "Cowboy Singing" were based on sketches he did while spending time on a ranch in what was then the Dakota territory, where he took refuge after he was fired from the academy, in part because of his use of nude male models.

"Cowboy Singing" depicts a man playing a banjo while wearing fringed leather clothing (Eakins took the outfit back to Philadelphia with him after his trip). The painting and the sketches were sold by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is the world's chief repository of the artist's work. The sales conclude a fundraising campaign by the museum and the Pennsylvania Academy to raise $68 million to buy one of Eakins's great masterpieces, "The Gross Clinic," from Thomas Jefferson University, which had owned it since 1897. If they hadn't met the goal, the National Gallery and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, were set to snap it up.

To get "Cowboy Singing," the DAM had to do some fancy finagling; part of the deal has the institution turning over half its ownership of "Long Jakes," by Charles Deas, to the Anschutz Collection. To my mind, this is strange, but it's indicative of how the DAM has been priced out of the market when it comes to adding to its Western collection. It also means that, like it or not, this kind of creative financing is going to become more common.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia