The controversy surrounding the career of American realist painter Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) is perfectly encapsulated by his great painting The Gross Clinic. The Philadelphia-born Eakins loved naturalistic detail and was a strong advocate for the use of nude models in artists’ education. That’s no big deal today; most college art classes employ nude models at least occasionally. In nineteenth-century America, however, the idea was scandalous, and it caused Eakins to lose his teaching position at his alma mater, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.(1) In addition to working from live models, another way that artists have learned about the human form since at least the Renaissance has been through the study of medicine, anatomy, and cadavers. Eakins supplemented his youthful art education with classes at the Jefferson Medical College – both the setting and longtime owner of this painting.(2)
The subject of The Gross Clinic is Jefferson Medical College’s pioneering surgeon and professor, Dr. Samuel Gross (1805-1884), performing a surgery in front of his class. At the time of its creation, the painting caused a great scandal because of its graphic medical details, copious use of blood, and high drama at a time when such surgeries were radically new ideas.(3) The painting was eventually purchased by Jefferson Medical College, who put up for sale in 2006. That caused another uproar, because people had come to appreciate the painting in the century since it had been made, and they didn’t want to see it leave Philadelphia.(4) Eventually, the Philadelphia Museum of Art managed to raise enough funds to purchase the painting and keep in in the city of its creation.
A painting that was once vilified grew to became an icon that people were willing to donate money to keep in their city and was eventually made the glorified centerpiece of a large-scale restoration effort and exhibition by its new owner. Funny how that can happen, isn’t it?
Sources: (1) Weinberg, H. Barbara. “Thomas Eakins (1844–1916): Painting.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004). Accessed February 18, 2016.
(2) American Masters. “Thomas Eakins, A Motion Picture: About Thomas Eakins”. PBS. (December 1, 2001.) Accessed February 18, 2016.
(3) Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic)”. Philadelphia Museum of Art Collection Database. Accessed February 18, 2016.
(4) Wikipedia. “The Gross Clinic”. Wikipedia.org. Accessed February 18, 2016.