12 Days: Different Doc; Same Slam

The Agnew Clinic

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?

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Explore posts in the same categories: Eakins Countdown

4 Comments on “12 Days: Different Doc; Same Slam”


  1. Excellent Blog!

    I have been thinking along same lines. Also not only is Art “intimate with reality” so are 21st century patients!

    Because of the internet, media coverage and yes,lawsuits doctors are now sharing their secret realm of the human body-in all its glory and disease states with patients.

    Eakins tried to do this over 130 years ago!

    I wonder? Did Philadelphia Organized Medicine play a role in preventing art viewers a glimpse into the secret world of wealthy powerful Phila. Docs?

    Dr. Rick Lippin
    Southampton, PA

  2. RMUTT Says:

    One wonders whether this quieter portrait of Agnew simply reflects the difference between the surgeons, the calmer temperament of medicine on the other side of the Schuykill or a concession to decorum commensurate with the anatomy.
    So much medical history was (and is) forged in this city at places like Jefferson and Penn it is currious that we do not have a museum of medical history here.

    That would be a reason to keep the Gross Clinic in Philadlephia. Giving the painting to the institution that censured the artist seems wrong.


  3. RMUTT

    While maybe not a “medical museum” as you envision per se we have The College of Physicians of Philadelphia on 22nd Street.www.collphyphil.org In addition to the world famous Mutter the College has a remarkable portrait collection and medical historical texts that is probably unmatched nationally.

    Dr. Rick Lippin
    Fellow- College of Physicians of Philadelphia


  4. The Agnew Clinic by Thomas Eakins is really two paintings in one. The operation can be seen as the primary subject, with all the light, while the student body is separate.

    Thank you for the podcast.


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