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.