30 Days: Masterpiece, Icon or Trophy?
Is The Gross Clinic medical illustration or masterpiece; triumph or trophy? The painting has always straddled different worlds with similar praises—sometimes uncomfortably and unhappily—and now it’s at it again.
William S. McFeely, in his newly-published Portrait: The Life of Thomas Eakins, only fans the flames. According to McFeely, Eakins hoped the painting would be shown at the Centennial and launch his career as an artist. As part of the art display, ”in view of thousands of people from all over the world, it would be praised as a masterpiece.” It was praised, all right—as a medical illustration. McFeely quotes an embittered contemporary observer: “The Gross Clinic was “exiled to the wall of the first-aid station.” Actually, it was the Army Post Hospital exhibit, but the point is made. As McFeely puts it: “what was to have been a triumph turned into a deeply disillusioning experience for an artist mistaken for an illustrator.”
Today, more than a century later, we’re all clear on exactly what The Gross Clinic is to us. Or are we? If Eakins were alive today, McFeely writes, he “might be amused to find The Gross Clinic treated as almost a holy icon. The painting hangs today in a shrine, a virtual chapel behind a bronze gate at Dr. Gross’s Jefferson Medical College. But as reverently as it is treated, The Gross Clinic is still a medical school’s trophy.” McFeely believes “only when it is on public exhibition [in a museum setting] can it be fully appreciated as a powerful work of art.”
Will The Gross Clinic be any less of a trophy at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, Arkansas? Imagine this Eakins in the slowly rotating lineup featured on the website of that still-to-open Ozark institution. Take a minute. Go to www.crystalbridges.org and try to assure yourself the painting wouldn’t be the buck with the biggest set of antlers in this all-star artistic lineup.
What exactly is the best setting for such a cultural icon? And do all of our cultural artifacts need to reside in museums?