15 Days: About Brotherly Love
Last week, Sister Mary Scullion raised an important issue. “The civic uproar over the pending sale of Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic for $68 million raises complex questions about our society’s priorities and values.”
“Each day in our city,” writes Sister Mary in a Philadelphia Inquirer oped piece, “many people do without the basic necessities for themselves and their families.”
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
In the depths of the Great Depression, the Philadelphia Museum of Art purchased another 7-by-8-foot canvas, Paul Cézanne’s The Large Bathers. The price: a record $110,000. At the time, more than 40,000 Philadelphia families (one in ten) lacked bathtubs. The Philadelphia Record noted that the money “would buy bathtubs for nearly half of these bathtubless dwellings.” Cartoonist Jerry Doyle depicted William Penn holding out the canvas and saying: “Look it! I bought you a pretty picture.”
Taunting also came from Albert Barnes, who claimed to have turned down the same picture for $80,000. Barnes bought another in Cézanne’s Bathers series.
Seventy years later, tourism folks identify The Bathers in Philadelphia and Merion as the best we have. But, as good as they are, do the Cézannes represent who we are?
In the end, Sister Mary suggests “the controversy over this painting should not pit the arts against human needs” and “the best outcome” is to keep The Gross Clinic in Philadelphia. Its presence will “enlighten us to the necessity of investing in health care with an emphasis on those who are left behind.”
From what we know of him, Eakins would agree. The Philadelphia Record would agree. Even Barnes would agree. Sister Mary’s point is about the soul of a city, our city, a place whose very name is “Brotherly Love.”