12 Days: Different Doc; Same Slam
Fourteen years after The Gross Clinic, Thomas Eakins took another stab at depicting a great man of medicine. We recently visited The Agnew Clinic, the 7-by-8-foot canvas featuring a significantly less blood-splattered surgery, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For his efforts — and Eakins worked day and night for three months to complete this canvas on deadline for the University of Pennsylvania — he was spurned again. This time it wasn’t the blood, but the operation. Eakins depicted a mastectomy.
Agnew takes backseat to Gross in the eyes of Eakins scholars. “This work, somewhat freer in over-all execution, lacks the dramatic, almost Rembrandtesque focus of light and dark of The Gross Clinic,”writes art historian Barbara Novak. “The structure is more lax, the loss in power marked.” Eakins cast Agnew as a man about to retire, in the process of passing his scalpel on to colleagues and students. Unlike Gross, Agnew is no God of Surgery. Still, the painting was an artistic achievement well worth exhibiting.
This time, though, “the critical reception was…not aesthetic but moralistic.” Novak writes that “the directors of The Pennsylvania Academy refused to allow it to hang in the 1891 annual exhibition.”
Another “Philadelphia moment” for Thomas Eakins.
Only five years before, the Academy had censured and fired the artist for introducing female students to the reality of male anatomy. And here, again, Eakins holds to his belief that art is not art unless it is intimate with reality. Real doctors. Real blood. A real operation.
What kind of art were they expecting?