Phila. seminary to sell Eakins paintings to support renovation costs


Catholic News Service

PHILADELPHIA — St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood announced it was placing five portraits painted by Thomas Eakins for sale through Christie’s Private Sales in New York.

Other pieces of art have also been placed for sale with other auction firms.

Funds from the sale of the paintings, first discussed in October, will go toward the seminary’s consolidation and renovation expenses. Additional funding is expected to come through a capital campaign and the sale of approximately 40 acres of the 75-acre campus.

“The seminary has long been a steward of these works, but it is the right time to seize an opportunity to do what is best for the artwork and for the seminary itself,” said Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop Timothy C. Senior, seminary rector.

“We will keep many of the paintings in our collection but the core mission of the seminary is to form men for service in the priesthood. We are not a museum. Our hope is that as a result of this decision the Eakins paintings can find a home where they can be well cared for and viewed widely by people from across the country. What we are doing is consistent with our overall efforts to re-energize the seminary and focus on its mission while building for the future.”

The Eakins paintings the seminary plans to sell include: “Archbishop James Frederick Wood” (1877); “Reverend James P. Turner” (1900); “The Right Reverend James F. Loughlin” and “Dr. Patrick Garvey” (1902); “James A. Flaherty” (1903).

Other than the Archbishop Wood and Flaherty portraits, the Eakins subjects were faculty members of St. Charles Seminary. Although the Philadelphia-born Eakins was not Catholic, during the first part of the 20th century he and a Catholic friend, Samuel Murray, would bicycle on Sundays to the seminary to attend vespers and enjoy conversation with the priests.

These visits, shortly after the death of Thomas Eakins’ father, were said to have brought him solace.

Eakins, who is widely considered by American art historians to be the most profound realist of his time, donated paintings to the priests, most of whom left them to the seminary.

Flaherty, the only layman depicted in the portraits, was a Philadelphia lawyer and founder of the Knights of Columbus in Philadelphia and elsewhere in Pennsylvania. He went on to become supreme knight and filled that post during perhaps its most dynamic period.

Under his watch in World War I, because of a shortage of Catholic chaplains, the Knights recruited and paid priests to serve as chaplains. After the war the Knights organized training programs for returning soldiers, which became the model for the federal G.I. Bill.

Flaherty’s portrait was commissioned by the Philadelphia Knights and displayed in their headquarters until it was ultimately donated by them to the seminary.

Archbishop Wood (1813-1883) became the fifth bishop of Philadelphia in 1860. When the diocese was elevated to an archdiocese 1875, he was its first archbishop.

In addition to the Eakins portraits, two other paintings have been placed for sale with other auction agencies.

How much the paintings will bring, only time will tell. They are considered lesser works of Eakins, and were mostly painted as gifts to friends. The Msgr. Loughlin portrait, which is full length, is probably the most valuable, according to Cate Kokolis, vice president of services and assessment at St. Charles who is most knowledgeable about the collection.

The Archbishop Wood portrait might have been the most valuable were it not for an ill-conceived attempt at restoration in 1930 that greatly diminished its value. This plays into Bishop Senior’s point, the paintings will be better preserved for future enjoyment if they are placed in an institution where they can receive the expert attention they deserve.

An older St. Charles Seminary history mentions at least 150 paintings on display at the seminary, mostly religious art, but none are deemed as commercially valuable as those that are now being marketed, although some others may be sold at a future date.

One interesting painting that remains is the “Crucifixion” painted by Francis Martin Drexel, displayed in the Eakins Room. He was the father of Anthony Drexel, who founded Drexel University, and the grandfather of St. Katharine Drexel. He switched from art to investment banking, which was much more lucrative.

But maybe not, considering that Eakins’ most famous work, “The Gross Clinic” (1875), was originally sold to Jefferson Medical College for $200 and resold by the now-university in 2006 for $68 million.

Eakins’ only religious work, a “Crucifixion” painted in 1880, could not attract a buyer because it was deemed “too graphic.” It was donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by the Eakins family in 1929.

Because of the art sale and the other planned fundraising methods the seminary is poised for future growth to 200 seminarians in residence, as well as hundreds of nonresidential candidates for the permanent diaconate and full- and part-time students enrolled in the graduate theology school.