Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Flesh, Blood, and Brains

Soon we’ll make the connection between the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s conservation treatment of Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic and my own concerns about caring for the oil paintings in our family collection.  But first I thought I’d indulge in a few completely amateur thoughts on the greatness of The Gross Clinic.

Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875.  (Post-conservation, 2010).
Thomas Eakins, American, 1844-1916.  Oil on canvas, 8 feet x 6 feet 6 inches (243.8 x 198.1 cm).
Philadelphia Museum of Art, 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,
with the generous support of more than 3,500 donors, 2007.
Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Detail: The Gross Clinic
by Thomas Eakins.
Follow the light.  While much of the room is dark, bright natural light shines down from above to highlight the areas where Eakins wants us to look closer.  The light illuminates the bare thigh of the patient, the deep incision, and the vivid spurt of blood.

Equally important as the flesh and blood, the light reflects off the forehead of Dr. Samuel Gross, physician and teacher.  For Dr. Gross, the light functions as a visual cue equivalent to a halo in a religious painting.  But this is the very antithesis of a religious painting, and it is Dr. Gross who is leading us out of darkness through his unflinching dedication to rationality—the world of science and medicine.

Detail: The Gross Clinic
by Thomas Eakins.
This is medicine practiced rigorously, unsentimentally.  Eakins’ brilliant use of subtle tones, dramatic lighting, and the meticulous staging of a wide variety of seemingly casual figures combine to bring a Rembrandt-like approach to the heady intellectual urban world of Philadelphia, one of the world’s leading scientific centers in 1875.

Within the picture itself, Eakins offers a range of possible responses to the conspicuously bloody operation.  Most notably, a woman withdraws in theatrical horror to the left of Dr. Gross.  Curiously, this was the initial reaction of many critics when the painting was first displayed at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876.  These critics were so offended by the realistic depiction of the flesh and blood that they missed the grace note of Dr. Gross.  Eakins celebrates the clear-headed determination of men of science like Dr. Gross, leading the next generation toward the medical advances of the twentieth century that would save countless lives and relieve much unnecessary suffering.  You can’t get there if you throw your hands over your eyes in horror.  Eakins calls us to examine life closely, without flinching.

The special exhibition “An Eakins Masterpiece Restored: Seeing The Gross Clinic Anew” can be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Perelman Building) through January 9.  Treat yourself to one more gift this season and add a visit to your holiday schedule!

© 2010 Lee Price

1 comment:

  1. The details of the image are so amazing, but I can't help but feel like the patient's mother every time I see this painting!