- The Gross Clinic
"The Gross Clinic" is an 1875 painting by
Thomas Eakins. It is oil on canvasand measures 8' by 6'6". Dr. Samuel D. Gross, a seventy-year-old professor dressed in a black frock coat, lectures a group of Jefferson Medical Collegestudents. Included among the group is a self-portrait of Eakins, who is seated to the right of the tunnel railing, sketching or writing. Seen over Dr. Gross' right shoulder is the clinic clerk, Dr. Franklin West, taking notes on the operation. Eakins's signature is painted into the painting, on the front of the surgical table.
Admired for its uncompromising realism, "The Gross Clinic" has an important place documenting the history of medicine—both because it honors the emergence of
surgeryas a healing profession (previously, surgery was associated primarily with amputation), and because it shows us what the surgical theater looked like in the nineteenth century. The painting is based on a surgery witnessed by Eakins, in which Gross treated a young man for osteomyelitisof the femur. Gross is pictured here performing a conservative operation as opposed to an amputation (which is how the patient would normally have been treated in previous decades). Here, surgeons crowd around the anesthetized patient in their frock coats. This is just prior to the adoption of a hygienic surgical environment (see asepsis). "The Gross Clinic" is thus often contrasted with Eakins's later painting "The Agnew Clinic", which depicts a cleaner, brighter, surgical theater. In comparing the two, we see the advancement in our understanding of the prevention of infection.
Interestingly, the sex of the patient is not established by anything concrete in the painting itself. This fact makes "The Gross Clinic" somewhat unique, as it presents the spectator with a body that is naked and exposed, and yet is not entirely legible as male or female. Another intriguing element of this painting is the lone woman in the painting, seen in the middle ground of the painting, cringing in distress. She can be read as a female relative of the patient, acting as a chaperone. Her dramatic figure functions as a strong contrast to the calm, professional demeanor of the men who surround the patient. This bloody and very blunt depiction of surgery was shocking at the time it was first exhibited, and remains so for many viewers of the painting today.
The painting was submitted for the 1876
Centennial Exhibitionin Philadelphia, but was rejected. When it was eventually displayed, a critic for the " New York Tribune" wrote that it was "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." Controversy about the painting has centered on its violence, and on the melodramatic presence of the woman. Contemporary scholars have suggested that the painting may be read in terms of castration anxiety and fantasies of mastery over the body (e.g. Michael Fried), and that it documents Eakins's ambivalence about representing sex difference (e.g. Jennifer Doyle). The painting has also been understood to be drawing an analogy between painting and surgery and as identifying the work of the artist with the emergence of surgery as a respected profession.
In 2002 an art critic for The New York Times called it "hands down, the finest 19th-century American painting."Kimmelman, Michael (June 21, 2002). [http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F02E5D6153FF932A15755C0A9649C8B63 Art Review: A Fire Stoking Realism.] "
New York Times"] In 2006, in response to the impending sale of this painting, The New York Times published a "close reading" which sketches some of the different critical perspectives on this work of art.Shattuck, Kathryn (November 17, 2006). [http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/19/arts/design/19shat.html?ex=1321592400&en=a8afee83b90ae480&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss.] " New York Times"]
After its purchase for $200 at the time of the Centennial Exhibition, the painting was housed in the College Building of
Jefferson Medical College, Thomas Jefferson Universityin Philadelphia until it was moved in the mid-1980s to Jefferson Alumni Hall. On November 11, 2006, the Thomas Jefferson University Boardvoted to sell the painting for $68 million to the National Gallery of Artin Washington and the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, now under construction in Bentonville, Arkansas. The sale would represent a record price for an artwork made in the United States prior to World War II.Vogel, Carol (November 11, 2006). Eakins Masterwork Is to Be Sold to Museums. " The New York Times"]
The proposed sale was seen as a secretive actSalisbury, Stephan (November 14, 2006), A divisive deal, "
The Philadelphia Inquirer" http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/16005417.htm] that many from Philadelphia believed betrayed the city's cultural legacy. [http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/editorial/16005437.htm Selling off a city treasure] ] In late November 2006, efforts began to keep the painting in Philadelphia, including a fund with a December 26 deadline to raise money to purchase it and a plan to invoke a clause regarding "historic objects" in the city's historic preservation code. In a matter of weeks the fund raised $30 million, and on December 21, 2006, WachoviaBank agreed to loan the difference until the rest of the money has been raised, keeping the painting in town at the Philadelphia Museum of Artand the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. A reproduction of the original painting sits in the place of the original at Jefferson University.
*Jennifer Doyle, "Sex, Scandal, and Thomas Eakins's "The Gross Clinic" in "Representations" (Fall 1999), included in "Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire" (University of Minnesota Press, 2006)
*Michael Fried, "Realism, Writing, and Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane" (University of Chicago Press, 1998)
*"Philadelphia Works to Keep "Gross" Treasure", broadcast Thursday, 12/14/06, on
National Public Radio's " Morning Edition" [http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6622315]
*"Wal-Mart Heir's Bid for Art Riles Philadelphians", broadcast Thursday, 12/14/06, on National Public Radio's "
All Things Considered" [http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6626805]
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