15 Scandalous Facts About Thomas Eakins's The Gross Clinic

American realist Thomas Eakins earned renown for portraits so true to life they could almost be mistaken for photographs. But his greatest accomplishment was also his most controversial, 1875's The Gross Clinic

1. IT PAYS TRIBUTE TO AN ADMIRED PHILADELPHIAN. 

Eakins was a proud native of Philadelphia, and often drew inspiration from the city’s settings and inhabitants. As part of this trend, Eakins created The Gross Clinic to honor the achievements of lauded local surgeon Dr. Samuel D. Gross

2. IT DEPICTS GROSS IN HIS NORMAL ENVIRONMENT. 

The Gross Clinic is set within Philadelphia's Jefferson Medical College, where Gross graduated in 1828 and later returned as a professor in 1856. During his tenure at Jefferson, he became the 20th president of the American Medical Association, and founded both the American Surgical Association and the Pathological Society of Philadelphia. 

3. EAKINS MAY HAVE FOUND INSPIRATION IN REMBRANDT. 

The Dutch master's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulps is not only similar in its depiction of a surgery lecture but also in its true focus being not the medical event itself but the people in attendance. A skilled portraitist, Eakins took great care to carefully capture the surgeons, students, spectators, and Gross down to the finest details.  

4. EVEN SO, EAKINS BROKE FROM OTHER SURGICAL PAINTERS IN A MAJOR WAY. 

Rembrandt and others who came before had depicted doctors working on cadavers. Few dared to portray the act of surgery on a live patient as Eakins does here. 

5. IT'S ALSO A SNEAKY SELF-PORTRAIT.

If you look closely on the painting's right hand side, you'll see a man in the dark balcony, observing intently as he scribbles in a notebook. This is Eakins, inserting a cameo into his greatest work. 

6. IT'S ONE OF EAKINS'S LARGEST PAINTINGS. 

The Gross Clinic measures in at 8 feet by 6 feet, 6 inches. 

7. EARLY RESTORATIONS NEARLY RUINED IT. 

In 1929, Susan Eakins, the artist's widow, penned an angry letter complaining of the "fancy red light" a restoration had added to The Gross Clinic. But things got worse in 1940 when restorer Hannah Mee Horner glued a plywood backing onto the canvas. Because of the painting's size, Horner used two separate pieces of plywood. Over the years, the flexing and warping of these two separate bits of wood began to stress the painting along the seam, threatening to tear it in two. Thankfully later restorations undid Horner's horrendous missteps and removed the colored varnish Mrs. Eakins had loathed.

8. IT WAS NOT A COMMISSION.

Considering its prestigious subject and its stately setting, one might well assume Eakins was asked to create The Gross Clinic, but it was a product of Eakins following his inspiration. Since he didn’t have to answer to a client, Eakins was free to embrace his evolving form of "scientific realism," which turned out to be a real risk.  

9. EAKINS HAD HIGH HOPES FOR THE GROSS CLINIC. 

Even though the painting didn’t have a definite buyer, Eakins poured himself into the work. He spent a year on the painting, even prepping with six small portraits of Gross and an oil sketch of the final scene. In a letter dated April 1875, Eakins wrote to his friend Earl Shinn about the in-the-works painting, declaring, "What elates me more is that I have just got a new picture blocked in and it is very far better than anything I have ever done. As I spoil things less and less in finishing I have the greatest hopes of this one." Specifically, Eakins hoped he could unveil the painting at the city's spectacular 1876 Centennial Exhibition

10. THE GROSS CLINIC WAS DENIED ITS INTENDED DEBUT.

The selection committee for the Centennial Exhibition’s art show rejected the piece, forcing Eakins to premiere it in a less prestigious setting on the exhibit’s grounds, a reconstruction of a U.S. Army Post Hospital. Rather than appearing in a gallery, the painting for which Eakins had such ambitious hopes hung in an area devoted to displaying medical furniture

11. MEANWHILE, THE ARTIST'S CHESS PLAYERS WAS ACCEPTED.

The oil painting portraying three men hovered over a chessboard in a posh setting was proudly displayed at the Centennial Exhibition, where it won much praise. Today it hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

12. CRITICS LOATHED AND LOVED THE GROSS CLINIC.

Detractors criticized the piece for sensationalizing an already grisly subject matter. But this outrage was in part because of its location in a busy exhibition. The New York Tribune wrote of it, "One of the most powerful, horrible, yet fascinating pictures that has been painted anywhere in this century ... but the more one praises it, the more one must condemn its admission to a gallery where men and women of weak nerves must be compelled to look at it, for not to look at it is impossible." 

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph declared, "There is nothing so fine in the American section of the Art Department of the Exhibition and it is a great pity that the squeamishness of the Selection Committee compelled the artist to find a place in the United States Hospital Building." 

13. SIMILAR OUTCRY AROSE YEARS LATER OVER THE AGNEW CLINIC.

A follow-up of sorts, the 1889 piece depicted surgeon David Hayes Agnew overseeing a partial mastectomy in a medical amphitheater. It was denied a spot in 1891's Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and 1892's New York's Society of American Artists before being accepted to 1893's World's Columbian Exposition, where it was criticized for its graphic depiction of surgery and female nudity. (One art critic warned that “delicate or sensitive women or children suddenly confronted by the portrayal of these clinical horrors might receive a shock from which they would never recover.”)

14. JEFFERSON MEDICAL COLLEGE WAS QUICK TO CLAIM THE GROSS CLINIC

The Gross Clinic did not have to linger long in the U.S. Army Post Hospital. Alumni of the college it depicts acquired the piece for $200 and gifted it to the Jefferson Medical College. For more than 131 years, the polarizing portrait was a proud part of the school's collection. In 2006, a reproduction took its place when the board voted to sell Eakins' masterpiece for $68 million, sparking a citywide controversy in Philadelphia.

15. A BATTLE BEGAN TO KEEP THE PAINTING IN PHILADELPHIA.

To boost its fundraising efforts, Thomas Jefferson University—which houses Jefferson Medical College—made plans to sell the piece to such far flung institutions as the National Gallery of Art in Washington or the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Outrage from the local art community spurred the University to allow 45 days for a Philadelphia museum or organization to match their asking price. 

The going was slow at first, but amid public outcry the deadline was extended. The Philadelphia Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts teamed up to raise enough money to keep The Gross Clinic in the City of Brotherly Love. Funds were borrowed, and paintings from both art collections were sold, including Eakins' The Cello Player and Cowboy Singing. Finally, in April 2008, the joint effort officially secured The Gross Clinic's place in Philadelphia, where it had long been a part of the city’s history and culture.

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John MacDougall, Getty Images
Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
Arrested 11/9/1938 — Altstrelitzer prison
Deported 1942 Auschwitz
Murdered

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.

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Evening Standard/Stringer, Getty Images
60 Years Later, a Lost Stanley Kubrick Script Has Been Found
Evening Standard/Stringer, Getty Images
Evening Standard/Stringer, Getty Images

A “lost” screenplay co-written by famed filmmaker Stanley Kubrick has been found after 60 years, Vulture reports.

The screenplay is an adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s novella Burning Secret, which Vulture describes as a reverse Lolita (plot summary for those who forgot high school English class: a man enters a relationship with a woman because of his obsession with her 12-year-old daughter). In Burning Secret, a man befriends an adolescent boy in order to seduce his mother. Zweig’s other works have inspired films like Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (which the director claims he "stole" from Zweig's novels Beware of Pity and The Post-Office Girl).

Kubrick’s screenplay adaptation is co-written by novelist Calder Willingham and dated October 24, 1956. Although the screenplay bears a stamp from MGM’s screenwriting department, Nathan Abrams—the Bangor University professor who discovered the script—thinks it’s likely the studio found it too risqué for mass audiences.

“The child acts as an unwitting go-between for his mother and her would-be lover, making for a disturbing story with sexuality and child abuse churning beneath its surface,” Abrams told The Guardian. It's worth noting, however, that Kubrick directed an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita in 1962, which MGM distributed, and it was also met with a fair share of controversy.

Abrams said the screenplay for Burning Secret is complete enough that it could be created by filmmakers today. He noted that the discovery is particularly exciting because it confirms speculations Kubrick scholars have had for decades.

“Kubrick aficionados knew he wanted to do it, [but] no one ever thought it was completed,” Abrams told The Guardian.

The Guardian reports that Abrams found the screenplay while researching his book Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film. The screenplay is owned by the family of one of Kubrick’s colleagues.

[h/t Vulture]

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