Born to a calligraphist in Philadelphia in 1844, Thomas Eakins first displayed an aptitude for line drawing at the age of 12. In 1861 he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), and in 1866, he set off to Paris to complete further training. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, though he rejected what he thought were the “classical pretensions” of the French Academy and the newly emerging Impressionist movement, favoring realism. A brief stint in Spain, inspired by the work of de Ribera and Velàzquez, solidified his commitment to capturing the exactness of the human form.
Eakins first began his career painting historical and genre subjects, including rowers and wrestlers. By the early 20th century he turned to portraiture, fulfilling his interest in capturing the human figure. Eakins’ portraits are deeply rooted in reality; he chose to work meticulously from life, emphasizing the realistic flesh and blood qualities of the individuals who posed for him.
He became a professor at PAFA in 1878, eventually becoming the school’s director several years later. As a teacher, Eakins challenged his students to study the human body in ways previously unexplored, using photographs (often his own) as a reference for anatomy, and surgical dissection as a study aid. He had plaster casts made of surgical dissections, which were then provided to his students.
His seminal masterwork, “Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross,” more commonly called “The Gross Clinic,” executed in 1875, is considered by many art historians to be one of the best, and most important, paintings ever made by an American artist. The painting depicts Dr. Samuel D. Gross, a professor and renowned surgeon at Jefferson Medical College, lecturing to an amphitheater of medical students, while performing surgery on an anesthetized patient.
The auditorium seating is filled with darkened figures of students, while in the foreground, a woman clad in black, believed to be the patient’s mother, covers her face with her arm, unable to watch the procedure. Eakins’ unflinching realism as applied to the patient’s prostrate form, and the practicing surgeons surrounding him, their hands and instruments blood-stained and eerily illuminated, produces a startling visual effect. And at eight feet tall by more than six feet wide, the painting is as overwhelming in its size as its subject matter.
“The Gross Clinic,” painted by a thoroughly Philadelphian artist, of a Philadelphian doctor, in a Philadelphian medical school, had obvious connections to this city. It had hung at Jefferson Medical College since 1876, when the school purchased it for $200. So in 2006, when the board at the school announced it was selling the painting, and that the new owners were to be the National Gallery of Art in D.C. and Alice Walton, heiress to the Wal-Mart chain (for her as-then-unnamed museum in Crystal Bridges, Arkansas), there was an understandable amount of outrage and public blowback. How could such a quintessentially Philadelphian painting leave Philadelphia? But how could Philadelphia match the $68 million offer price to keep the painting here?
Passionately, as it turns out. The Philadelphia Museum of Art (which holds the largest collection of works by Eakins—prints, paintings, bronzes, sculpture studies—than any other museum or institution in the country) and PAFA (where Eakins was educated and later taught) joined together to raise the funds to place a competing offer. They established a deadline (December of that year) and planned to appeal to Philadelphia’s Historical Commission, invoking a clause that would classify the painting as an “historic object” vital to the history of the city, in line with the preservation codes. The city hung banners along the city’s major thoroughfares with close-ups of sections of the painting.
As the deadline approached, the two museums had raised $30 million. No small sum, but less than half of the required amount to convince Jefferson to consider their counteroffer. Sensing the historic importance, Wachovia Bank (now Wells Fargo) stepped in to loan the remaining amount to the institutions. More than 3,400 private individuals also contributed, and the painting was, thankfully, spared a life outside the city that created it, a city that didn’t know what it had until it was almost gone.
A condition of the dual-museum purchase meant that “The Gross Clinic” now splits its time between both, spending two years on view in one before rotating to the other. Currently, the painting resides at PAFA, where it is hung in the main gallery, without wall labels and surrounded by other works of art of varying time periods and styles, meant to mimic the salon exhibitions popular at the turn of the century.