Restoring Eakins’ The Gross Clinic

Thomas Eakins The Gross Clinic
Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross, more commonly referred to as The Gross Clinic, is a painting with a history.

The painting is regarded as the masterpiece in the oeuvre of Thomas Eakins, who was in turn considered the greatest American painter of his time. The painting has been described as the most important American painting of the 19th Century.

It is a dramatic, large scale canvas, 8ft by 6½ft (240x200cm), showing the pioneering surgeon lecturing students as he performs an operation. Among the recognizable figures portrayed is a self-portrait of Eakins, who sits, sketching or writing, to the right of the tunnel railing (above, bottom right).

The young Eakins, who while a student at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts had also studied anatomy at Jefferson Medical College where Dr. Gross taught, wanted to create a grand canvas, perhaps partially to cement his reputation as an artist, in what may be seen as a homage to Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp; but also, it has been suggested, to compare the role of an artist with that of a physician, both of which were emerging as more respected professions at the time.

Eakins spent a year on the canvas; reportedly, he badgered the retired Dr. Gross so often for additional sittings that the latter found the painter supremely annoying.

Eakins was hoping to exhibit the painting at the important Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, but it was rejected by the Committee of Selection. It was eventually displayed in another part of the Exposition, in Ward One of the U.S. Army Post Hospital, representatives of the Medical College having pulled strings as they felt the painting improved the image and status of the school.

General reception was the the painting was artistically strong, striking in its realism, but inappropriate and graphic in subject matter; a critic for the New York Tribune describing it as: ‘… one of the most powerful, horrible, yet fascinating pictures that has been painted anywhere in this century..”. The reaction from the public was perhaps anticipated by Eakins’ portrayal of a woman covering her face in revulsion in the painting’s left foreground.

At the end of the Centennial, in 1878, the Alumni Association of Jefferson Medical College purchased the painting for $200 (perhaps roughly $3,000 in current dollars) and donated it to Jefferson Medical College (now Thomas Jefferson University), with the intention that the portrait of their teacher and mentor would be a permanent part of the cultural legacy of the school.

In 2006, a lazy and arrogant board of directors of Thomas Jefferson University decided it was their privilege to sell off part of the cultural heritage of the school, and the city of Philadelphia, rather than sully their delicate hands with the actual work of fundraising.

To this end, they connived a secretive deal with Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, as part of her corporate raider style acquisition of works from financially weakened institutions from various cities to stock her ego monument, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas. (Not the most art collections didn’t start as ego monuments of rich people.) In the attempt to surreptitiously remove the Gross Clinic from Philadelphia, they were shamefully aided by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. which would have shared ownership of the work.

Fortunately, news of the board’s machinations leaked and the impending deal flared into scandal as Jefferson students and alumni, the city and its arts community mounted opposition, and eventually, though the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, mounted a $68 million fundraising campaign to keep the painting in Philadelphia.

This was at the cost of the Academy having to sell off Eakins’ The Cello Player (also here) to an unidentified buyer (a painting I personally liked more than the Gross Clinic, though not considered nearly as important), and the PMA having to sell (or “deaccession”, to use the current weird euphemism for museums selling off art) Eakins’ Cowboy Singing and two Eakins sketches.

For more, see my posts from the time, Eakins’ The Gross Clinic – held for ransom? and The Continuing Saga of the Thomas Eakins Gross Clinic Art-as-Commodity Scandal.

The Gross Clinic is now part of a special exhibition at the Philadelphia Art Museum, centering on it’s recent restoration.

In addition to other indignities, The Gross Clinic has been subjected over time to several disastrous attempts at “restoration” (out of five overall). These were often performed by perhaps well intentioned individuals who lacked a knowledge of Eakins’ appraoch and technique, as well as the aesthetics of his time.

The worst was a “cleaning” sometime between 1917 and 1925, in which an attempt to “brighten” the painting removed several layers of Eakins’ glazed color, unbalancing the painting’s deep chiaroscuro and changing the overall nature of the image. In 1940 a restorer attached two pieces of plywood to the back of the canvas, ostensibly to “stabilize” it, resulting in straining of the canvas as the plywood warped.

In 2008 the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts undertook and assessment, and in 2009 a modern restoration project, in which the painting was in the hands of knowledgeable restorers and Eakins experts. This has led to a number of articles and reviews with headlines in which The Gross Clinic is described as being “in surgery” or “operated on”. (I have of course refrained from such silliness, mainly because they beat me to it.)

The conservators were faced with the challenge of restoring areas of paint that had been removed by previous hands, and rebalancing the color of the painting to Eakin’s original intentions. In this effort they were armed, fortunately, with a photograph of the painting prior to the first cleaning, along with a preliminary color sketch and an monochromatic version (a collotype) by the artist. The most important factor, however, is probably their deep understanding of Eakins, his works and original techniques.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has several web pages devoted to the exhibition, An Eakins Masterpiece Restored: Seeing The Gross Clinic Anew, the conservation project and the painting itself.

The exhibition, which includes the preliminary color sketch and a later painting by Eakins of a similar subject, The Agnew Clinic (also here), to which The Gross Clinic is often compared, runs to January 9, 2011.

Hopefully this is one of the brighter chapters in the painting’s eventful history.


8 Replies to “Restoring Eakins’ The Gross Clinic

  1. Nice article, though I didn’t care for the gratuitous slam “part of her corporate raider style acquisition of works from financially weakened institutions from various cities to stock her ego monument.” That whole passage is long on accusations, short on facts.

    More importantly, considering how crucial you deem the right shade and color to be to the respect for and understanding of Eakins’ painting, you might want to adjust the color balance of the images you present of it. The flesh tones are yellow in the first photo and tend to the orange and magenta in the second one. They look completely different. Which are correct?

    Finally, you cropped the photo of the painting, cutting off Eakins’ right hand and making the whole composition uncomfortably tight. (THAT doesn’t strike me as respectful, either.)

  2. You’re correct, of course, about the tone. I get bent out of shape more than usual about this because I feel a personal connection to both Jefferson, in the hospital of which I received my kidney transplant, and PAFA, of which I am an alumni.

    While in the hospital for the transplant (15 years ago), I felt the portrait made a connection between the two that I found comforting for some reason, and strongly resented the arrogance of this particular board of directors deciding they had the license dispose of the painting as they liked at that point in its over 100 year history, as if it were their own personal garage sale.

    The characterization of Walton’s “collecting” approach could be verified, but I’m not up for it. It’s out there if you dig. Chalk it up as opinion, though I do point out that most art collections (and the museums they sometimes spawn) are the result of ego gratification on the part of some rich collector.

    For accuracy on the image, see the Philadelphia Museum links I provided. The crop of the main figure’s head is the accurate color. I grabbed the larger image where I could.

    I’m writing these posts in a hurry in between 4 professional deadlines and several other issues that otherwise command my time, and I spent way too much time on this one already.

  3. Restoring paintings… can’t get behind that. Age is a part of art, if the artist isn’t around to change the image (or in this case “fix” it) then leave it alone! It also seems, that this most recent restoration is almost simply a reversal of before attempted restorations- so now we are at a restoration of a restoration of a restoration- we can’t even say for sure what this painting originally looked like.

  4. Nice article, Charlie. Definitely a powerful painting.
    FYI: Eakens followed up The Gross Clinic 14 years later with a commissioned work: The Agnew Clinic, another very controversial painting.


  5. The Gross Clinic is certainly important and an immensely interesting painting. Eakins considered it important and, as you point out, Gross found Eakins’s obsessive attentions regarding the pose to be annoying. But tastes change and, while we can acknowledge the importance of the painting, I’m not sure Ive ever met anyone for whom this is their favorite by Eakins. One has only to think of his rowing scenes, landscapes and other portraits. Eakins may have imagined this as his masterpiece but I think his high point is elsewhere. And ultimately, a century later, the pose of that woman on the left now seems melodramatic and patronizing (the men can handle this scene, a woman cannot.)

  6. thanks for this informative writeup and brief history lesson on the restoration process of this great painting. Interesting comment by Daniel above about the woman’s pose being both melodramatic and patronizing, right on both counts! But in all respects these paintings are time capsules that represent a bygone era and bygone rules.

    In that regard, I always wonder about “restoration” and what it entails in terms of the restorers’ knowledge. I remain skeptical that we finally know enough to undo all the clumsy attempts of past restorers. Will the current restorations be considered so artful and respectful a hundred years from now? Or will some future restorer labor over fixing the mistakes of the 20th/21st Centuries?

    I think probably the latter!

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