Eakins Countdown: 38 Days

So, who was this Gross? And why did Eakins choose to paint him?

America’s 100th birthday offered an opportunity for folks to step back, inhale, and take stock. And it was up to insightful artists like Eakins to capture and direct the public imagination. Throughout his career, Eakins mined everyday life for the unique and heroic American in their natural settings. And he found plenty: rowers, boxers, hunters, baseball players and fishermen. But on the eve of the nation’s anniversary, in the very place where the nation was born, what kind of an image could possibly hit the mark?

To paint his way out of this puzzle, Eakins needed to consider what the Founding Fathers envisioned for Philadelphia. And he needed to show, in real-life terms, what the city had become. Gross’s surgery clinic, the nexus of smarts, skill, science and success, was exactly right. Eakins must have been euphoric when he realized this scene, in the heart of America’s First City, in an institution named for the most visionary Founding Father, was the absolute right one.

Once done, The Gross Clinic served as painted proof of the Founding Fathers vision. In its particular way, it defines Centennial America. And it drives a stake in the ground stating that Philadelphia had come of age.

Are there other works of art that make the same kind of bold declaration?

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6 Comments on “Eakins Countdown: 38 Days”

  1. Elizabeth Milroy Says:

    I would echo the majority of commentators and bloggers who contend that the sale of The Gross Clinic robs Philadelphia of one of its most important cultural treasures. Eakins’s portrait is a masterful tribute to the medical profession and Philadelphia’s medical legacy. The desire among some Jefferson university administrators and trustees to sell the Gross Clinic is not new – rumors swirled around two decades ago that the National Gallery was courting the university until prevented by the alumni/ae. We shouldn’t be surprised then that this has arisen again, now that they have found a willing and wealthy buyer. As a private institution, Jefferson is fully within its rights to sell off assets. And throughout the history of the American art market, there have been numerous instances when owning institutions have placed expediency before stewardship. Still, this does not excuse an ill-advised decision made without responsible consultation.
    I too am curious to know how the figure of $68 million was calculated (why not $67 mil, or $69?) – and where did 45 days come from? These strike me as arbitrary numbers. The decision by Jefferson’s board to bypass local institutions during negotiations is reprehensible, but perhaps not surprising given Philadelphia’s lackluster commitment to preserving important local cultural treasures.
    But just to play devil’s advocate, and to echo at least one blogger, how many Philadelphians, or others, have actually seen the Gross Clinic? Photographs do not do the painting justice, yet according to published reports, there are comparatively few visitors to the gallery where Jefferson has hung its Eakins portraits. Most people have seen the canvas only when on loan to special exhibitions, such as the Eakins retrospective five years ago at the Art Museum. Indeed, Jefferson might have showed true generosity years ago by placing the canvas on long-term loan, preferably to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. But the alumni wanted to keep it at the school, so now they must deal with decisions made, in an inadvisably secret fashion, by their own board of trustees.
    Much as we are appalled by the threatened sale, we should also be very aware of and ready to rebut a persuasive counter-argument. Eakins’s painting is not just Philadelphia’s masterpiece, it belongs to the nation, indeed the world. If we are indignant that an Eakins might leave Philadelphia, then should we return the collections of our national museums back to their places of origin? Hundreds of thousands of people will have an opportunity to see the painting in Washington. And its not unlikely that millions will be able to see it in, of all places, Bentonville, Arkansas, which is after all only about sixty miles from Branson, Missouri. It is tempting to think that Eakins, who was legendary for his disdain for the pretensions of Philadelphia’s elite and who struggled to get his pictures seen, might have enjoyed the irony of moving his masterpiece to the populist hub of 21st century showbiz glitz that annually attracts more than seven million visitors!
    But Jefferson is not selling the painting to a public institution. Will the Crystal Bridges museum provide a stable and safe environment, and will it truly be accessible to the public? Will it be administered by a professionally trained museum staff? And what assurances do we have that Alice Walton won’t resell the painting if her museum project fails (as did the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago)?
    Jefferson has thrown out a challenge to Philadelphians and to its own alumnae/i. The sale of this icon would certainly send a message about the qualified commitment of Philadelphians to their own history. The leaders of the Pennsylvania Academy and the Philadelphia Museum, who are leading the effort to raise a considerable sum of money under considerable pressure, must be applauded for their dedication and energies. Everyone should contribute what they can – not only to keep The Gross Clinic in Philadelphia but more importantly to send a clear message that Philadelphians are deeply committed to preserving our cultural heritage and that we will work to the limits of our resources to preserving that heritage

  2. anonymous Says:

    Interesting post, but what significance does being one hour from Branson, MO have?

  3. anonnymus Says:

    WHYY should go produce more TV programs like that Eakins documentary. Doesn’t WHYY have anything better to do these days than start web blogs?

  4. anonymous Says:

    Re the distance from Branson — because Americans live in their cars and an hour’s drive isn’t much in the Midwest. Any new museum will need to promote itself. The Crystal Bridges folks can’t afford to pass up an attraction that draws more than 7 mil people/year. Does anyone know the annual visitation stats for Independence Hall?

  5. private Says:

    What’s the difference between this financial transaction and the transaction to take over the Barnes??
    I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Philadelphia City managers are combing the halls of city owned institutions looking for saleable ( cash revenue producing ) works of art. They can start scare tactic web blogs to generate cash and political cash as well.
    I can’t wait to see what comes out of the wood work.
    H in Pa.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    The statistics counting the low number of visitors to see “The Gross Clinic” at the museum are probably due more to the confusion of getting to the American Art galleries in the museum, and less to the unpopularity of the painting, as some articles have suggested. If memory serves, the American Art wing is very hard to find. One has to go around the temporary exhibit, which means going downstairs and then coming back up to the first floor, the American Wing. Everytime I am there, it’s obvious that people can’t figure it out, because the wing is often pretty quiet.
    As another blogger has pointed out, it’s not illegal to sell the painting, it’s just irresponsible. Normally, a seller will give local institutions the opportunity to make a bid, but that did not happen in this case. Instead, I imagine the Waltons are waltzing around America, looking to throw their millions at art owners in trouble to get what they want. There is still plenty of expensive, wonderful art on the market through public auctions. Why do they need this work so badly? This whole situation smells fishy to me.

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