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Philadelphia Museum of Art Presents Thomas Eakins’ Restored “Gross Clinic”

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The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins
The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins

Often described as one of the most important American paintings from the 19th-century, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s recent restoration of Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic”, is currently on display at the Museum until January. Capturing Eakins’ characteristic darkness (or at least chiaroscuro), the work is as historically illuminating as it is aesthetic. Dr. Samuel D. Gross, a man once monikered to be “the Emperor of American Surgery,” looks like a cross between a volkisch composer and an unhinged colonial era statesman (and I thought paintings of nineteenth-century lawyers were scary!). Shown originally at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, early critics actually banished the work from display for its rather gross, graphic depiction of the removal of a malignancy from a young lady’s thigh.

Over the past 10 months, conservators Kathleen A. Foster and Mark Tucker led an ambitious restoration effort to reverse extensive changes made to the work sometime between 1917 and 1925 under the direction of its former owner, Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. The painting, which has not been displayed in public since last July, went back on view July 24th at the Museum in the exhibition “An Eakins Masterpiece Restored: Seeing ‘The Gross Clinic’ Anew,” which will continue through Jan. 9. The exhibition marks the culmination of a $68 million fund-raising effort by the 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, “Anatomy/Academy,” an exploration of the lively intellectual commerce between Philadelphia artists and scientists over the years.

While there may be critics of the restoration job done on “The Gross Clinic” by Foster and Tucker (whom most have lauded), it is hard not to agree that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is the proper home for the masterpiece. 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 their professional powers. It represents a true synthesis of the everlasting artistic elements of creation, destruction, and realism (being so true to its time and subject matter, depicting the gory, incremental (dare I say insidious?) emergence of modern medicine). 

Thanks to the job done by Foster and Tucker, the story is now most likely the one Eakins intended to tell, re-establishing the work as a milestone in his artistic mission to accomplish what he once said of his teacher, the French Academic Realist Gérôme, in an 1869 letter: “He 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.”

* While I am sure he was a much greater man than I, and a vanguard sawbones during his day, I am pretty sure that I would not like to see Dr. Gross anywhere near my pre-operative body based on this painting.