Thomas Eakins’s “The Gross Clinic” May Be the Most Important American Painting
In 1875, Thomas Eakins decided to paint a picture that would glorify his hometown of Philadelphia. The first ever World’s Fair to be held in the United States, the Centennial International Exhibition, would open in the city the following year. Through his painting, Eakins hoped to honor the scientific breakthroughs that were coming out of the local Jefferson Medical College. The artist observed live procedures by the celebrated surgeon Dr. Samuel Gross, then translated them onto a large-scale canvas that he titled Dr. Gross (1875) (now known as The Gross Clinic). The work has become perhaps the most important painting in the history of American art.
Eakins’s ambitious painting brought Renaissance-era virtuosity to the mid–19th century United States, as American art was still struggling to find its place on the world stage. The Gross Clinic, which still hangs in Philadelphia today, is a triumph of composition, light, and shadow. The picture remains arrestingly eerie: The canvas spotlights Dr. Gross as he operates on an exposed thigh with the help of five seated assistants. Blood coats their hands, scalpels, and the deep incision halfway to the knee of the otherwise hidden patient. A female onlooker shields her face, while the students in the surrounding amphitheater watch calmly and take notes. The painting both reveals and conceals its subject matter, functioning as a brutal record and an homage to science. These contradictions make the painting a virtuosic feat, continuing to compel and frighten viewers nearly 150 years after its making.
When Eakins started work on The Gross Clinic, he was already an accomplished painter. He’d graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1866 and continued his art education in Paris, studying with painters Jean-Léon Gérôme and Léon Bonnat. Living in Europe gave Eakins access to museums filled with Old Master works. Upon visiting Spain, the artist was enthralled by the canvases of Diego Velázquez andJusepe de Ribera.
Back home in Philadelphia, Eakins made portraits of his family and a series of scullers—competitive boaters who row with two oars. In The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) (1871), Eakins painted himself into the composition as a sculler in a boat behind Max Schmitt.
With The Gross Clinic, Eakins rightly believed that he was taking his painting to the next level. He attended numerous lectures at Dr. Gross’s clinic and masterfully pieced together his composition from sketches of the surgical theater. He may have also referenced photographs of Dr. Gross (not all preparatory works for the canvas were documented or preserved). The result “had the effect of reality, but was actually completely contrived,” says Kathleen Foster, senior curator and director of the Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Foster notes how groundbreaking Eakins’s subject matter was. The artist depicted Dr. Gross conducting a form of surgery he invented, which removed diseased bone from a wound via skillful incisions. Anesthesia itself had only been around since 1846, allowing doctors to execute longer, more labored surgeries. The medical establishment had previously amputated limbs in these types of situations. Through his group scene, the artist captured the scientific value in teamwork and unity. According to Foster, Eakins captured a moment “so emblematic of the power of progress in American medicine.”
Eakins biographer Sidney Kirkpatrick goes so far as to assert that “no artist since the Renaissance had overcome such challenges in arrangement of figures and action or composed a work of such intellectual and metaphysical scope.”
Unfortunately for Eakins, the Centennial committee rejected the painting for the main exhibition halls, perhaps because it was too bloody. Before the fair opened, however, the artist arranged to show the work at Haseltine Galleries, where it found a champion in Daily Evening Telegraph art critic William Clark. “This portrait of Dr. Gross is a great work—we know of nothing greater than has ever been executed in America,” he wrote. Thanks in part to the review, the selection committee agreed to hang The Gross Clinic in an auxiliary locale: the U.S. Army Post Hospital. They believed that here, in a medical context, the bloody picture wouldn’t offend anyone. The painting found a permanent home with the Jefferson Medical College in 1878, after the school paid $200 for the work.
When the painting traveled to New York City in 1879, the critics weren’t any more supportive. The New York Timesaccused Eakins of failing to recognize “where to stop” and what the limits are “between the beauty of the nude and the indecency of the naked.” Victorian-era prudery worked against Eakins. Yet by the end of his life, he’d achieved acclaim as a major American artist. He was invited to participate in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and the National Academy named him an associate in 1902, a prestigious award at the time. Eakins died in 1916.
Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic, 1889. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The Gross Clinic has enjoyed an exciting afterlife. The painting stayed at Thomas Jefferson Medical College until 2006, when the institution tried to sell it for $68 million to the National Gallery of Art and collector Alice Walton. In 2008, the city of Philadelphia and local musuems raised matching funds to keep the painting local. It now resides in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, swapping locales every three years.
Scholars have found endless interpretive possibilities in the single canvas. Michael Fried’s 1985 paper “Realism, Writing, and Disfiguration in Thomas Eakins’s Gross Clinic, with a Postscript on Stephen Crane’s Upturned Faces” proposes the canvas as a commentary on the act of painting itself, suggesting that in the work, blood and paint are “tokens of one another, natural equivalents whose special relationship is here foregrounded with unprecedented vividness.” The Gross Clinic, in Fried’s Freudian reading, addresses castration anxiety and Eakins’s relationship with his own father through the depiction of Dr. Gross. In 1999, scholar Jennifer Doyle published “Sex, Scandal, and Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic,” which considers Eakins’s own sexuality and the “ungendered body at the heart of an assertion of painterly realism.”
Foster goes so far as to say that “for topics of realism, science, and sexuality, no single painting has been more versatile and stimulating as a mirror of concerns.” It’s a fitting description for a canvas that’s ultimately about a group of people all probing the same wound.
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Eakins’s original title as “The Gross Clinic.” His first title for the painting was actually “Dr. Gross.”