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Nelson-Atkins displays painting it won in Super Bowl bet with Philadelphia art museum

Thomas Eakins (American, 1844–1916). 'Sailing' 1875. Oil on canvas. The Alex Simpson, Jr., Collection.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Thomas Eakins' 1875 oil painting "Sailing," is in Kansas City as part of a Super Bowl bet between the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Thomas Eakins' oil painting “Sailing” starts a two-month run Thursday at Kansas City's premier art institution. The display comes as the city prepares to host the NFL Draft for the first time.

There’s a new painting at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City serving as the metro’s latest, unofficial Super Bowl trophy.

The 1875 oil painting is the result of a winning bet the metro's premier gallery made against the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“It is with great pride that we put 'Sailing' on view so that our city can once again celebrate the Chiefs' exciting Super Bowl win,” Nelson-Atkins Director Julián Zugazagoitia said Tuesday.

The artist is revered in Philadelphia as a giant of 19th and early-20th century American art.

The painting is about 2 feet, 7 inches tall and about 4 feet wide. It shows a pair of men on a small sailboat beneath an overcast sky.

“Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins celebrates the joy of movement as two friends glide across the Schuylkill River," Zugazagoitia said. "The power and motion conveyed in this painting is not so different from the vigor and grace that America’s championship athletes, our beloved Chiefs, displayed in their nail-biting triumph over the Eagles."

High-profile bets have become a part of the Super Bowl landscape, and the 'museum bowl' wager encouraged a friendly rivalry between cultural institutions.

William Keyse Rudolph, deputy director of Curatorial Affairs at the Nelson-Atkins, said it was a playful way for the two museums to collaborate amidst the Super Bowl hoopla.

“Eakins was one of the great, great painters of sports. He painted boxers, he painted wrestlers, and, in particular, he painted people boating and sailing," Rudolph said. "It seemed really natural for us to see if we could get our hands on a great sporting picture.”

Rudolph said Eakins' brooding use of color has a modern sensibility.

"Eakins used a palette that often involved browns and grays and dark colors, and that contributes to a feeling of heaviness, moodiness, introspection to his work," Rudolph said. "It's why something made in 1875 can still, in 2023, speak to us emotionally."

Eakins spent almost his entire life in Philadelphia — he studied for a few years in Paris — Rudolph said, "and the people of Philadelphia and the scenery of Philadelphia were his subject matter.”

 The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
Matt Rourke
Associated Press and Nelson-Atkins
The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

An art loan represents a major effort in coordinating curators, art handlers and insurance.

PMA’s Director of Curatorial Initiatives Jessica Todd Smith told WHYY in February that it usually takes a year or more of planning to safely and securely move an object from one museum to another.

The Nelson-Atkins staff selected the dramatic painting as their prize in February. Before coming to Kansas City, the painting was in storage.

"Sailing" is on view in Kansas City for the next two months. While it's on display in the second floor of American Galleries, it will hang alongside other notable works from Missouri artists George Caleb Bingham and Thomas Hart Benton.

The display comes about a week ahead of Kansas City’s turn hosting the NFL Draft.

On the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of the draft, museum docents will be stationed near the painting to speak with guests about the significance of the work.

“Each city has a great football team, and each city has a great art museum. The Super Bowl stimulated us to think about what greatness and artistic excellence can mean,” he said.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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