Eakins Countdown: 39 Days
Even as great works of art go, The Gross Clinic cuts a wake of hyperbole. From the beginning it’s been a magnet for stellar compliments–and devastating insults.
Eakins himself never harbored doubts. In April 1875, he wrote to friend and artist Earl Shinn: “What elates me more is that I have just got a new picture blocked in & it is very far better than anything I have ever done.” And the stogy John Sartain, who saw the work in progress that August, wrote that “it bids fair to be a capital work.” Approval by the establishment was no small thing. (Sartain would be an influential member of the Selecting Committee for the Centennial Exhibition.) But by the following winter, the depiction of real blood from real incisions made by a real surgeon would shut The Gross Clinic out of the art display at Memorial Hall. In following his instinct to greatness, Eakins had crossed a line.
But another sensibility was at work, too. Call it the law of equals and opposites balancing out. Call it enlightenment. Whatever the reason, The Gross Clinic also found an enthusiastic following. “This portrait of Dr. Gross is a great work,” wrote a critic for The Philadelphia Evening Telegraph in April 1876, “we know of nothing greater that has ever been executed in America.” And the official history of the Centennial Exhibition itself commented that “it was one of the most powerful and life-like pictures to be seen in the Exhibition, and should have had a place in the Art Gallery.”
Three years later, while on exhibit in New York, The Gross Clinic again evoked conflicting responses. Here was “one of the most powerful, horrible and yet fascinating pictures that has been painted anywhere in this century” wrote a critic for The New York Daily Tribune, but “one must condemn its admission to a gallery where men and women of weak nerves must be compelled to look at it. The more we study Mr. Thomas Eakins’ ‘Professor Gross,’ the more our wonder grows that it was ever painted in the first place, and that it was ever exhibited in the second.”
What a difference a century makes. Since the 1970s, art historians have declared it “the greatest single painting in the history of American art,” the “Holy Grail of American Painting.” In 2002, the last time The Gross Clinic was on view in New York, the chief art critic for The New York Times, called it “hands down, the finest 19th-century American painting.” And just last week, at the announcement of its pending final departure from Philadelphia, Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery commented with satisfaction, if not glee: “We have good Eakins, even great Eakins, but nothing like this. It’s America’s ‘Night Watch,’ ” he added, referring to Rembrandt’s masterpiece, Amsterdam’s national treasure.
Could it be that Eakins’ hometown never really shook its unfortunate first impression of The Gross Clinic?