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.