Often described as one of the most important American paintings from the 19th-century, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s recentÂ restoration of Thomas Eakins’Â “The Gross Clinic”, is currently on display at the Museum until January.Â CapturingÂ Eakins’ characteristic darkness (or at least chiaroscuro), the work is as historically illuminating as it is aesthetic. Dr. Samuel D.Â Gross, a man once monikered to beÂ “the Emperor of American Surgery,” looks like a cross between a volkischÂ composer and an unhinged colonial era statesman (and I thought paintings of nineteenth-centuryÂ lawyersÂ were scary!).Â Shown originallyÂ atÂ the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, early critics actually banishedÂ theÂ workÂ from displayÂ forÂ its rather gross,Â graphic depiction ofÂ the removal of a malignancyÂ from aÂ young lady’sÂ thigh.
Over the past 10 months, conservatorsÂ Kathleen A.Â Foster and Mark TuckerÂ led an ambitious restoration effort to reverse extensive changes made to theÂ work sometime between 1917 and 1925 under the direction of its former owner, Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. The painting, which has not beenÂ displayed in public since last July, went back on view July 24thÂ at the Museum in the exhibition â€œAn Eakins Masterpiece Restored: Seeing â€˜The Gross Clinic’ Anew,â€ which will continue through Jan. 9. The exhibition marks the culmination of a $68 million fund-raising effort by theÂ Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts needed to keep it after Thomas Jefferson University announced plans to sell it in a joint deal to the National Gallery of Art in Washington and to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, being built in Bentonville, Arkansas. The Philadelphia Museum and the Academy now share it, and the Academy will show the restored painting next in an exhibition opening on Jan. 29, â€œAnatomy/Academy,â€ an exploration of the lively intellectual commerce between Philadelphia artists and scientists over the years.
While thereÂ may beÂ critics of the restoration jobÂ done onÂ “The Gross Clinic”Â by Foster and TuckerÂ (whom most haveÂ lauded),Â it is hardÂ not to agreeÂ that theÂ Philadelphia Museum of ArtÂ isÂ the proper home for the masterpiece.Â Painted just blocks from the Museum, in the city where Eakins lived his entire life, “Gross Clinic” celebrates the lives of two men at the peak of theirÂ professional powers. It representsÂ a trueÂ synthesis of the everlasting artistic elements ofÂ creation, destruction, and realism (being so true to its time and subject matter, depicting the gory, incremental (dare I say insidious?)Â emergence of modern medicine).Â
ThanksÂ to the job done by Foster and Tucker, theÂ story is now most likely the one Eakins intended to tell, re-establishing the work as a milestone in his artisticÂ mission to accomplish what he once said of his teacher, the French Academic Realist GÃ©rÃ´me, in an 1869 letter: â€œHe has made himself a judge of men and insofar as a painter is a creator he creates new men or brings back those you want to see.â€
* While I am sure he was a much greater man than I, and a vanguard sawbonesÂ during his day,Â I am pretty sure that I would not like to see Dr. Gross anywhere near my pre-operative bodyÂ based on this painting.