34 Days: Visiting the Real Thing
There’s something for us in the old saying: “The Owl of Minerva only flies at night.” Even (and maybe especially) the Goddess of Wisdom benefits after learning the lessons of the day.
When you visit The Gross Clinic at Jefferson’s beige brick Alumni Hall on Locust between 10th and 11th, you’ll also be introduced to other artifacts in their collection, including an ancient statue of Minerva. Don’t miss the Staffordshire leech jar and the amputation chain saw. In the anteroom, in addition to a 2nd century, white-marble Minerva who has seen better days, look up on the opposite wall. There, a sympathethic Portrait of a Soldier from 1917 by Susan McDowell Eakins sets the tone for things to come.
As you cross the threshold into what feels like an inner sanctum, you’ll see three paintings and several cases of objects. The authority, complexity and sheer scale of The Gross Clinic easily overpowers the entire scene. As we approached during a recent lunch hour, several hushed visitors were eyed by the guard who assured me that visitation has increased one hundred-fold. Students, senior citizens and possibly an insurance salesman took turns exploring the picture, the two other Eakins portraits, and listening to a recording. Looking at the real thing, it seems that Eakins went out of his way to welcome you, the viewer. Rather than feeling like an intruder here, you feel like an honored guest. You are given the best possible prospect of the Doctor and his busy assistants, the unconscious patient and his fresh incision, his cringing mother; the lounging, attentive students. You just entered an important work-in -progress through a virtual eight-by-seven foot door. At the same time, you realize it is a painting and you are not actually Gross’ guest at all. And then you realize how Eakins used Philadelphia’s here and now in 1875 to make this masterpiece come alive and stay alive.
Albert Barnes wouldn’t allow copies of his paintings. He felt reproductions were poor substitutes. Barnes had a very good point. If you are reading this Monday through Saturday and it is between 10am and 4pm or if it is Sunday between Noon and 4pm, get up and go visit The Gross Clinic. It is great, it is here–and it is free. And two out of these three facts are about to change.