Catholic Church and Priest’s Family Battle Over Thomas Eakins Portrait

Philly's Archdiocese aims to auction off an Eakins.

Detail of Thomas Eakins, The Right Reverend James F. Loughlin (1902).

Can the Archdiocese of Philadelphia sell a valuable Thomas Eakins painting of the late Monsignor Patrick J. Garvey, or should Garvey’s family be able to keep it on display at another religious institution? As the New York Times reports, the two sides are currently embroiled in a disagreement about the painting’s fate.

The archdiocese is hoping to sell the work (along with four other clerical portraits by Eakins; Saint Peter’s Cathedral by his student Colin Campbell Cooper; and Alice Neel’s Archbishop Jean Jadot [1976]) to Christie’s to raise money for St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, where Garvey served as a rector. Though the dioceses, which boasts a 200-work collection, believes the painting was given to them decades ago, the Garveys argue it was only a loan.

The Garveys say that 40 members of their extended family have been ordained as priests, including Rev. John Murphy Farley, a cardinal and New York’s archbishop from 1902 to 1918, and Monsignor Michael J. Lavelle, longtime rector of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Their campaign to stop the painting’s sale will include canvasing local parishioners with pamphlets explaining their cause.

Thomas Eakins’s portrait of Msgr. Patrick J. Garvey (1902) is for sale but the Archdioceses of Philadelphia, but the priest's family says the church does not own it and wants to block the sale.

Thomas Eakins’s portrait of Msgr. Patrick J. Garvey (1902) is for sale but the Archdioceses of Philadelphia, but the priest’s family says the church does not own it and wants to block the sale.

Robert E. Goldman, the family’s lawyer assured the Times that the Garveys do not wish to sell the painting for their own benefit: “We simply seek to preserve and safeguard the painting, so it can be displayed in a place that honors his memory.”

The Catholic priest and the painter were friendly, and Eakins used to regularly bike to the seminary for visits. Garvey sat for the portrait in 1902, six years before his death, but thought that the finished product was too stern and kept it under his bed. His nephew, Father Patrick H. McGinnis, later found the painting, and returned it to the seminary some 50 years after Garvey’s death. The case hinges on whether McGinnis intended the piece to be a gift or a loan.

The attempted sale of Eakins’ work by institutions in Philadelphia has made headlines in the past. Jefferson Medical College’s planned 2006 sale of The Gross Clinic to an out-of-state group launched a massive fundraising campaign, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts were ultimately able to match the piece’s $68 million price.

It is unlikely that a similar effort will arise over the upcoming Archdiocese sale. “As much as we’d like to see the clerics stay in Philly, they don’t hold the same level of art historical importance [as The Gross Clinic],” Pennsylvania Academy president David R. Brigham told the Times.

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