The Gross Clinic is recognized as one of the greatest American paintings ever made. The young and little-known Eakins created it specifically for Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition, intending to showcase his talents as an artist and to honor the scientific achievements of his native Philadelphia.
Choosing the city’s world-famous surgeon and teacher Dr. Samuel Gross as his subject, Eakins sets the scene in Jefferson Medical College’s surgical amphitheater. Dr. Gross is shown leading a clinic of five doctors operating on the left thigh of a patient. At the same time Gross is demonstrating to students the relatively new surgical procedure he had developed to treat bone infections. In contrast to the recoiling woman to the left—traditionally identified as the patient’s mother—Gross embodies the confidence that comes from knowledge and experience. Casting himself as a witness, Eakins can be seen seated to the right of the tunnel railing, sketching or writing.
The artist’s plan to promote himself and the city of Philadelphia faltered, however, when the fair’s art jury rejected The Gross Clinic, perhaps deeming the subject too bloody and brutal for display in the art building. The painting appeared instead in a model US army field hospital exhibit, provoking one art critic to comment in the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph (June 16, 1876), “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.”
The subject shocked viewers unused to seeing such a frightening event depicted in such realistic detail. Bright red blood colors the surgeon’s fingers and scalpel, and the gaping incision is fascinating, repulsive, and confusing because it is so hard to read the position of the patient’s body. Although some viewers admired Eakins’s command of composition, color, and detail, and praised his convincing creation of form and space, many were repelled by what was considered ugly and inartistic realism.
Gift of the Alumni Association to Jefferson Medical College in 1878 and purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2007 with the generous support of more than 3,600 donors, 2007
About Thomas Eakins
Thomas Eakins was at the forefront of Realist painters who shifted the focus of American art from landscape to the figural subjects favored by the European academies in the 19th century. Working in oil, watercolor, sculpture and photography, Eakins is renowned for his pictures of outdoor activities and portraits of intense, brooding figures—many of whom were his friends and acquaintances—pictured in darkened interiors. Influenced by the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, Eakins was fascinated by the male physique, often unabashedly photographing his models in full nudity while boxing or wrestling. Viewing photographs as discrete works of art on paper, Eakins not only changed the status of photography as an art form but also introduced the camera as a tool in the American art studio.
American, 1844-1916, Philadelphia, PA, United States, based in Philadelphia, PA, United States