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Newly Restored, Eakins’s ‘The Gross Clinic’ to be Centerpiece of Exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Gross Clinic of 1875 is the most renowned work created by the great Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and a landmark in the history of 19th-century American art. In late 2008, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, joint owners of The Gross Clinic, initiated a plan to evaluate the condition of the painting, to research its conservation history, and assess the potential benefits of an effort to clean and restore it. The resulting study of The Gross Clinic and numerous other Eakins paintings made clear the potential of a new conservation treatment that would address the problems caused by an aggressive cleaning of the painting’s surface in the 1920s.

An Eakins Masterpiece Restored: Seeing ‘The Gross Clinic’ Anew enables visitors to appreciate the painting in new ways, exploring its creation, its critical reception, and the physical changes it has experienced over time. Following a sensitive treatment of the painting, which was carried out in recent months by the conservation staff of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the exhibition culminates an extensive study that yielded a comprehensive understanding of the painting’s original appearance, and documented the changes that had occurred to it over time.

“After carefully evaluating the painting’s history and condition in collaboration with our colleagues at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the decision was made to restore The Gross Clinic in a way that we believe accurately reflects the artist’s intentions,” said Timothy Rub, The George D. Widener Director and CEO. “We applaud the fine work of Mark Tucker, the Vice Chairman of Conservation and The Aronson Senior Conservator of Paintings, and his colleagues at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. I would add that this thoughtful exhibition, organized by Kathleen A. Foster, the Robert L. McNeil Senior Curator of American Art, also offers to Eakins some long overdue poetic justice. In celebrating the restoration and by placing the masterpiece into the context of the Centennial Exhibition, we are giving The Gross Clinic the presentation Eakins must have dreamed about having for it in Memorial Hall which housed the fine arts gallery of the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 in Fairmount Park.”

The exhibition conveys the remarkable initial public reaction to The Gross Clinic, using source materials from the Centennial that include news accounts expressing the range of response, from awe and praise to outright horror. The first room situates The Gross Clinic at the Centennial, which was a massive world’s fair in Philadelphia that marked the nation’s first century, and where Memorial Hall was built to house the first historical survey of American art. Displayed in this gallery are photographs of Memorial Hall showing art that was exhibited, including five works by Eakins but not his masterpiece, because The Gross Clinic was relegated to the U.S. Army medical post model. Also displayed are images of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Eakins had studied and taught from 1876-1886, as well as a biography of the famed Dr. Samuel D. Gross, a leading physician at Jefferson Medical College whom Eakins immortalized in The Gross Clinic.

At the core of the exhibition is the room devoted to Eakins’s major medical paintings. With The Gross Clinic is seen the Portrait of Dr. Benjamin H. Rand of 1874 (Crystal Bridges Museum), which was the artist’s first full-length portrait of a doctor, also presented at the Centennial Exhibition, and The Agnew Clinic of 1889 (owned by the University of Pennsylvania). In stark contrast to The Gross Clinic, where the doctors are wearing street clothes, The Agnew Clinic shows 14 years later a more modern medical team wearing surgical whites. “By reuniting The Gross Clinic and the Portrait of Dr. Benjamin Rand, we show his two major paintings of the Centennial together in the 19th-century salon atmosphere for which they were intended,” said Kathleen Foster. “And by placing The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic together we have Eakins’s two great clinical paintings in the same room, the first time they have been seen together in Philadelphia.”

Three surviving preparatory studies for The Gross Clinic and a new full-sized X-radiograph are on view in a third room providing insight into Eakins’s painting process, supplemented by texts explaining the artist’s commitment to an ideal of pictorial tone and color. This room also contains photographs of The Gross Clinic that document changes that restorers made over the years, having mistaken Eakins’s subtly adjusted tones and contrasts for surface grime. In addition are case studies from other works treated by Mark Tucker, including Eakins’s Between Rounds (1898–99), and Mending the Net (1881). A final gallery contains a documentary film produced by the Museum that examines ideas that informed the way in which Eakins used materials and techniques to achieve pictorial effects, and suggests why many of his paintings were altered after the artist’s death in 1916 by early restorations efforts that did not have the benefit of the extensive technical and historical research that are now the essential foundation of all conservation treatments to preserve and restore works of art.

The Gross Clinic is owned jointly by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, thanks to the successful campaign launched by the two institutions in 2006 to keep the painting in Philadelphia when it was offered for sale by Thomas Jefferson University. The Gross Clinic will move to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for a period of three years following the close of this exhibition in January. At the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, it will be presented in Anatomy/Academy, an exhibition exploring the intersection of Philadelphia’s art and medical communities. Anatomy/Academy will be on view January 29 through April 17, 2011.

Related Events:
Seeing The Gross Clinic Anew: Sunday, September 19, 1:00–4:00 p.m. Van Pelt Auditorium.

The conservation treatment of Thomas Eakins’s Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) presents an opportunity to share the research and insights of the team dedicated to preserving and interpreting this 1875 American masterpiece in the 21st century. Speakers at 1 p.m. include Kathleen A. Foster, The Robert L. McNeil, Jr., Senior Curator of American Art and Director, Center for American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Mark S. Tucker, The Aronson Senior Conservator of Paintings and Vice Chair of Conservation, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is among the largest art museums in the United States, showcasing more than 2,000 years of exceptional human creativity in masterpieces of painting, sculpture, works on paper, decorative arts and architectural settings from Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the United States. An exciting addition is the newly renovated and expanded Perelman Building, which opened its doors in September 2007 with five new exhibition spaces, a soaring skylit galleria, and a café overlooking a landscaped terrace. The Museum offers a wide variety of enriching activities, including programs for children and families, lectures, concerts and films.

For additional information, contact the Communications Department of the Philadelphia Museum of Art at (215) 684-7860. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street. For general information, call (215) 763-8100.

Image: Thomas Eakins, “The Gross Clinic”, 1875. Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art

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