Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Heroism of Modern Life; Thomas Eakins

The Gross Clinic (Dr. Charles Gross), 1875

Eakins' painting displayed in the model post hospital of the Medical Exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, 1876

The title of this post is taken from a book of essays on Thomas Eakins by Elizabeth Johns that came out 25 years ago. She rightly placed him in the context of the newly industrializing United States immediately after the Civil War. She took her title from Charles Baudelaire who urged artists to find their inspiration, not in history or myth, but in the new world of cities and industry all around them. Eakins did spend time in Paris as a young man studying under Salon stars Jean Leon Gerome and Thomas Couture (who was also Manet's teacher). It is not knowable if Eakins ever read Baudelaire's advice, but he certainly lived it out in his work.

The Gross Clinic, the painting illustrated above, launched Eakins' career, such as it was. If it was not for the inheritance of his boyhood home, and a small estate from his supportive and thoughtful father, he would probably have starved. Philadelphia did not treat Eakins well, and ever since his death, he's been in and out of the critical doghouse. Philadelphia most certainly did not like this painting. It was painted for the art exhibit at the big Centennial Exhibition of 1876, a huge opportunity for a young artist to make a splash before a national audience. The critics were horrified by it, as was the general public. It was banished out of the art exhibit altogether and displayed in the Medical section in a corner behind a curtain as you can see in the old photograph below the painting.
The critics attacked and the public recoiled for the very reasons that we admire this painting today, its candor and realism. It shows an operation in the very last years before the advent of antisepsis. It takes place in the amphitheater of the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia where Dr. Gross taught. The operation is a relatively routine one, the removal of some dead bone from the femur of a young boy. He's a little hard to make out. We see his right thigh and buttock, and we see his stocking clad feet. His head and upper body are concealed behind a large cotton gauze soaked in ether. All of the participants in this picture were actual colleagues and students of Dr. Gross. Most of Eakins' most ambitious paintings are extended portraits, and this is no exception. The assistants are all calm, professional, and compassionate. Dr. Gross looms in the center of the picture lecturing at the same time that he operates. The boy's mother recoils in horror to his right. Above her, a stenographer records the minutes of the procedure.
Eakins allows himself considerable dramatic license in the shadowy gloom of the amphitheater; in fact, it is a bright sunny room (it still exists). This is probably a charity case. Wealthier more important patients probably would not submit to the humiliation of being teaching subjects.
Eakins borrows considerably from the tenebrism of Rembrandt. He wants to show a drama of life and death. Surgery was anything but routine in those days. Even a relatively simple operation like this one was full of risks. Operating was usually a desperate last resort, and Eakins wanted to convey something of the momentousness of the occasion. Light plays across Dr. Gross' face. He bears the double burden of the responsibility for his patient's life, and the education of his students (and by implication, the lives of their future patients).
Eakins spares us nothing in the grisly details of the operation; retractors, probes, instruments, and above all, Dr Gross' brightly lit right hand holding the scalpel and covered in sticky red blood. This is precisely what so offended the critics and the public. Eakins refused to be discreet and to use the usual high heroic rhetoric expected in medical pictures at that time. Eakins believed, rightly, that the heroism was already there in the subject itself. All he had to do was to record it as candidly as possible, and to invest it with a certain drama. Eakins did indeed show the world very forcefully the heroism in something so very modern as medicine and medical science.

Eakins befriended many phyisicians, engineers, scholars, and scientists and painted many of their portraits. He considered himself one of them. Eakins thought of art to be an enterprise like science, to get at the truth of things independent of inherited beliefs and customs. The artist, like the scientist, looked at things for himself and regarded experience as the highest authority.
These professionals that he so admired did not always return the regard. Eakins' life was full of disappointment and accusations of scandal. He died a lonely hermit in the house he grew up in.

I first saw The Gross Clinic about 15 years ago at the Jefferson Medical College where it hung until very recently. For decades, the painting hung on a stair landing in the college, and students sometimes scratched their names into it with pen knives. When I saw it, it hung in its own gallery next to the faculty dining room. As the painting became famous, it became valuable and very expensive to maintain and insure. The College sold the painting to both the Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Pennsylvania Academy of Art (where Eakins once taught). It came very close to being bought by the Walmart heirs and carried off to Arkansas. Mercifully, the painting will remain in Philadelphia where it belongs, just as much as The Liberty Bell.


Göran Koch-Swahne said...


it's margaret said...

scratched their names in it?! has it been restored?

Counterlight said...

Yes it has, cleaned and everything.

Davis said...

Candor and realism weren't exactly 19th c values...

I'm interested to find you think the Max Schmidt to be so fine. I know it well, of course and most of Eakins' work, but find him struggling in it to make his point. Certainly the light and the landscape are fine, but it's not up to his later work like the Gross Clinic and some of the portraits in IMO.