Eakins' The Gross Clinic: between gore of surgery and sublimity of art
June 8, 2020 5:01 PM   Subscribe

"These last two months I’ve grown obsessed with one American painting: a bloody masterpiece of pain and healing, made in Philadelphia nearly a century and a half ago. Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) was still a young artist when he completed 'The Gross Clinic' (Wikipedia) an in-action, up-to-the-minute depiction of the vanguard of American medicine that feels particularly relevant right now." Critics initially hated it, but now praise it. Jason Farago reviews the painting, in detail, in an interactive New York Times article

If you're unable to view the interactive New York Times article, here are some articles that identify many of the same elements and nuances, and beyond: More context:
posted by filthy light thief (11 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
In 2007 Jefferson University put the painting up for sale. Rather than see it leave the city, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA) started fundraising to purchase it. Over 3,600 individuals donated, and are collectively credited as owners when it's displayed. It splits time between the Art Museum and PAFA.
posted by sepviva at 5:30 PM on June 8 [10 favorites]

Reminds me a bit of Rembrandt's different Anatomy Lessons.
posted by praemunire at 6:48 PM on June 8 [3 favorites]

'The Agnew Clinic'. by Eaikins.

from: The Ether Dome , Hinckleys' painting, 'The First Operation with Ether.' is a favorite.
posted by clavdivs at 7:11 PM on June 8 [2 favorites]

I have a small amount of history with both The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic, and I've really been privileged to spend some alone time with them.

I was attending an after-hours event at PAFA a few years ago, but was there with someone working the event and helping set up so there weren't any other guests yet. I walked into the gallery to, I forget, set up some chairs or something and BOOM there it was, in front of me, with no one else around. It's remarkable, and it is really a massive painting, much taller than a human; the people in it seem life-size and real enough to touch. It's absolutely engrossing, no pun intended. I stood there for a while just taking it all in.

I also spent some time at the University of Pennsylvania, where The Agnew Clinic hangs. I was just walking through one of the med school buildings one day and, once again, BOOM, there it was, hanging above a fairly large marble stairwell, if I remember correctly. I stopped in my tracks, walked back up the stairwell, found a bench (I think? it was a while ago), and again sat for probably too long looking at it.

Eakins is a wonder, and there are a bunch of levels that you can love these paintings on, which are pretty well covered in the NYT article (which, click through to that if you haven't). Just in pure artistry, they're remarkable and seem distinctly American, though I'm sure an art historian will come in here and tell me that's wrong (no worries! I'm not one!). But their place in telling the story of the history of medicine, and particularly Philadelphia's storied position in that history, is also remarkable.

You could put together a pretty interesting tour of Philadelphia's medical history by starting at Penn to see Agnew (AFAIK, though, not generally open to the public, since it's in an active med school building), going up to the PMA or PAFA to see Gross, doing a tour of the historic parts of Pennsylvania Hospital (founded in 1751 by Ben Franklin), and then visiting the Mutter Museum.
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 8:15 PM on June 8 [9 favorites]

I note several of the medical students(?) in The Agnew Clinic are asleep, presumably then as now after being overworked past all safety and good sense. I like the dude in mid-upper-left who's awake and snuggled with his sleeping buddy.
posted by away for regrooving at 12:15 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

That dude on the bottom right seems to be rather enthusiastically pulling on that metal leg opening contraption.
posted by Literaryhero at 4:44 AM on June 9

Oh wow, this has stirred up some memories. I always thought my high school had a reproduction of The Gross Clinic in its foyer (Eakins was an alumnus), but now I think it was actually The Agnew Clinic? I clearly remember staring at it in fascination going in and out of the school. Vast and wonderfully alive; I think I like it better than Gross Clinic.
posted by kalimac at 9:25 AM on June 9

The Agnew Clinic is housed in a building adjacent to the one I (normally, during non-quarantine) work in every day on the Penn campus, alongside a small displayed collection of historical medical equipment and a few other works of art. Special Agent Dale Cooper, your memory is accurate: the hallways and stairwells of the John Morgan building (and several of the other older medical buildings on campus) are filled with absolutely gorgeous marblework, including the stairways and facade on the walls, and the painting is at the top of a large marble staircase. The building is primarily used for research now, so unfortunately it's not really a patient-facing or public-facing area, but neither is it really locked away from the public. Right now things are of course more restricted than normal due to quarantine, especially since it's on the medical campus, but I'm sure it would be straightforward to get permission to come in and view the piece once things are back to normal, it's not a high-security area or anything. It really is a gorgeous painting, and the mini-collection of historical medical equipment is also really something to see. Since it's not really a museum I don't think anything is labeled, and some of it is pretty hard to imagine what it was for.
posted by biogeo at 1:24 PM on June 14

I've seen this painting in person, and it's really worth it. No amount of cool zooming or HD will do it justice. The painting is HUGE, truly life-size. It hangs on the wall at the perfect level so that you feel you are actually a student in the front row. The light of the painting is masterfully done so that you again, feel as if you are actually there.
posted by Stargazey at 6:44 AM on June 15

The Agnew Clinic is housed in a building adjacent to the one I (normally, during non-quarantine) work in every day on the Penn campus

I think they also occasionally loan it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as this is where I saw it. (They had the Agnew and Gross Clinic on display right across from each other when I went).
posted by Stargazey at 6:47 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]

I always have fun showing this painting to people and describing it as "Aging Wolverine teaches surgery."

In one of my grad school seminars, we spent quite a while on Eakins and I got pretty fascinated with his relationship with state-of-the-art science of the day; his lifetime was also the high water mark for classical physics and, in a bigger sense, the idea that everything was fully, perfectly knowable in a precise, mechanical way. He hung out with scientists and doctors, and that kind of idea permeates a lot of his art (I mean, The Gross Clinic is essentially a big billboard celebrating modern medicine.

I ended up writing a seminar paper about how some of the same flawed assumptions that plagued late 19th century scientific thought wound up introducing problems into Eakins' art... and then a while later, I de-academicified that paper and turned it into a blog post, if you're interested.
posted by COBRA! at 7:29 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]

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