Three Ways of Looking at Thomas Eakins

On November 10, 2006, Thomas Jefferson University, a medical school in Philadelphia, announced its intention to sell The Gross Clinic, a painting by Thomas Eakins, for $68 million. For an artist who once complained that his only honors were “misunderstanding, persecution, & neglect,” the price alone might have seemed an act of restitution. Eakins painted The Gross Clinic in 1875 at the age of thirty; widely regarded as one of the greatest American works of art, it has lost none of its power. It depicts Dr. Samuel Gross, a distinguished surgeon who taught at the university’s Jefferson Medical College, pausing during a surgical procedure, a bloody scalpel in his blood-drenched fingers, to address an audience of medical students. Four assistants attend to the patient, a young man whose left buttock and thigh, with an open incision, are exposed to view. One holds etherized gauze over the patient’s face. In a lower corner, a diminutive woman with clawlike hands shields her eyes in horror from the gory spectacle. Among the students, Eakins has painted a shadowy portrait of himself, dispassionately taking notes.

When The Gross Clinic was first exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, not in the hall of fine arts as Eakins had expected but deliberately hidden away in a small building devoted to Civil War medical practices, the woman’s shocked response more nearly matched the reaction of viewers. The scalpel with dripping blood was considered particularly provocative—“A degradation of Art,” one critic remarked. Bought for $200 and given to Thomas Jefferson University by an alumni group in 1878, the painting has remained relatively unseen despite the shrinelike gallery the university built for its display. Approximately five hundred visitors come to view it annually, an astonishingly low number for such a celebrated work of art. That will change with its sale.

Initially, the National Gallery of Art in Washington was to share ownership of the painting with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by the Wal-Mart heiress Alice L. Walton and scheduled to open in Bentonville, Arkansas, in 2009. Anticipating objections to the sale of a painting so closely identified with Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson University gave local institutions a chance to match the offer. The Philadelphia Museum of Art announced an aggressive fund-raising effort in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Eakins had studied and where he taught for many years, before his dismissal in 1886 amid allegations of impropriety regarding the use of nude models. The two museums achieved their aim. The Gross Clinic, which was placed on public view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on January 5, will remain in Philadelphia.

Except for three years of study in Paris, Eakins spent his entire life in Philadelphia. And yet for much of his career he was a pariah there, his name associated with various scandals and whispered allegations. The causes of Eakins’s embattled status have become clearer during recent years with the publication of a …

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