28 Days: Making Heroism American

This evening, Eakins expert Elizabeth Johns will lead off a public discussion about The Gross Clinic at WHYY’s Civic Space. In her book Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life, Johns makes the case for the painting as a unique American interpretation of a powerful international trend:

Most citizens on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1830s and 1840s, benefiting from the sweeping growth of educational, professional, and social opportunities, had every confidence that the eighteenth-century terms of heroism could be grafted to modern life. Their optimism became an article of faith that dominated popular and professional literature. Leaders in the new professional fields, men in commerce and industry, educators, and publishers of the vastly expanding number of periodicals and newspapers urged that men could cultivate heroism in every role—that of the physician, the writer, the pianist, the banker, the factory owner, even the athlete. Their creed had several tenets. These modern heroes would be ‘scientific,’ undertaking their work on the basis of principles developed through direct observation and experimentation; they would be ‘egalitarian,’ investigating without prejudice all phenomena, activities and people; they would be ‘progressive,’ acutely sensitive to change, and demonstrating their awareness of it by knowing the history of their pursuit. And finally, they would be ‘doers.’ They would transform the old hierarchies, in which a man’s worth was determined by his class, with the egalitarian standard of performance.

That said, Eakins’ choice to take Dr. Gross’s clinic and make this modern masterpiece was an absolutely brilliant choice—an “Aha!” moment in American identity. What else could have been a better choice for the dust jacket of John’s book?

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2 Comments on “28 Days: Making Heroism American”


  1. Congratulations to WHYY for its important role in covering the Eakins Painting sale story and implications thereof.

    To me I have “perverse gratitude” to the Jefferson leaders because for me this sale can spark a regional if not national debate on

    1) What do patients want from hospitals?- see my essay- http://medicalcrises.blogspot.com

    2)What can we expect from our regional health care sector institution leaders? Surely not decisions like this!

    Dr.Rick Lippin
    Southampton Pa


  2. Having attended the whyy informational meeting last night on the Gross Clinic I must say I have a much better understanding of the importance of this moving and dramatic painting to not just Artists but the Medical Community and the Philadelphia historical relevance. It does seem tragic that this painting could leave the environment where it has such a rich and colorful past and presence.
    The eloquent speakers both on the panel and in the community were passionate and thoughtful in their illuminating the dilemma we face at the loss of this Painting.
    Of course the amount of money needed to save it is intimidating and there would have to be a bit of a miracle to save it – it seems.
    Thank you to everyone who cares about culture in this community, Philadelphia is a truly rich environment for an artist to work. I wish Eakins could know how much this painting moves people today after his terrible rejection in his lifetime.
    Kathleen Sheehan
    Playful Cottage Art Center
    PAFA


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