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Transcript, ArtCurious Episode #48: Shock Art: Eakins' The Gross Clinic

I’ve mentioned before on this podcast that I sometimes like the weird and funky side of things. And that really holds true, for me, when it comes to art history. I mean, come on-- there’s a reason I called this show “ArtCurious” and not something else like “ArtBeautiful” or whatever. And that was the whole inspiration for these past two seasons-- to look at works of art that are shocking or strange, or terrifying, or what have you. But I’ve gotta admit that this fascination, for me, really only holds true in a format like painting or sculpture. Because if you’re showing me something in real life-- like a photo of something disastrous, or a video of a medical procedure-- most of the time, I’m out. It’s not for me. I’m not totally squeamish, but it’s not my thing. But if you put it on canvas, I want to know more, more, more. Odd, right?

Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Today, by popular demand, we are starting a new season of episodes that continue the theme of our last season. In season five, we will be dissecting single works of art that shook their contemporary worlds, covering another painting that causes waves, even today. In this episode, it’s time for the wonders of 19th century American medicine and the Victorian world that wasn’t ready for it-- we’re talking Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic.  This is the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.

Thomas Eakins was Philly-born, and Philly-proud, and as a former resident of Pennsylvania myself, I gotta say, represent. He was born in the City of Brotherly Love in 1844 and spent his most formative years learning from the city’s prestigious artists and art schools, studying for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the very first art school in the U.S., founded less than thirty years after the American Revolution. As the center of the small but growing art scene in the new country, Philadelphia was it for any American looking to become a true artist, and young Eakins excelled there, attending as many exhibitions and collections as possible while honing his craft. He even took anatomy courses and attended lectures at the Jefferson Medical College nearby, something which, as we’re about to see, not only influenced him in terms of being able to render the human figure in great precision, but would also become an important subject matter for him.

Just because Eakins was in the best city in America for studying art at that time didn’t mean that it had everything that he needed. And so, like many before and after, he really went for it-- and moved to the city most connected to art in the 19th century-- Paris. He lived in Paris for a number of years, studying with the famed Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme at the École des Beaux-Arts, continually improving his technical skill and falling deeply in love with realist modes of art-making-- the post-revolutionary art movement that rejected the overblown emotions and subject matter of the Romantics who came before, and opted, instead, to present scenes of everyday life without sentimentality or too much drama. When Eakins returned home to Philadelphia at the age of 26, he brought this fascination home with him. He worked consistently, portraying whatever he pleased--sure, he did the rare commission for a wealthy collector or two, but mostly he completed images of family and friends, and also  athletes or those engaging in outdoor activities, which he himself loved: hunting, fishing, boating, rowing, swimming; many of these works are part of Eakins’s legacy-- they are a big part of what Eakins is remembered for today. Eakins wasn’t terribly crazy about doing things that he wasn’t keen on doing. But even so, his excitement for one particular project stands out clearly. As H. Barbara Weinberg, curator emerita of American paintings and sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York wrote, “In late March 1875, the artist wrote to a friend, “I feel to myself that I am going soon to do work so much better than anything that I have made yet.” It seems likely that the project sparking Eakins’ enthusiasm was the canvas that occupied him for almost a year—The Gross Clinic.”  

Set in a dimly lit amphitheater, Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic depicts the titular doctor, Samuel D. Gross, lecturing a student audience while leading a surgical operation. Silver-haired, stern-faced, and dressed in a three-piece suit, Dr. Gross easily commands the attention of the viewer as he casually rests his left hand on the operating table and loosely holds a bloodied scalpel in the other. Surrounding him are his surgical assistants, who attend to the incision made on the patient’s left thigh as the doctor lectures to the crowd Most of them can be identified. There’s Dr. Joseph W. Hearn, an anesthesiologist, sitting at the far end of the table, who covers the patient’s head with anesthesia-soaked gauze. Going clockwise from Dr. Hearn is Dr. James M. Barton, probing the incision with a wooden, stick-like instrument. Next in the bottom right of the painting is a younger surgeon, Dr. Daniel Appel, holding a metal retractor that separates one side of the incision. To Dr. Appel’s left is Dr. Charles S. Briggs, whose hands grip the patient’s calves to keep them in place during the surgery. Another assistant-- this one is not identified-- is sitting behind Dr. Gross, holding an additional retractor. A scribe identified as Dr. Franklin West sits behind on a pedestal recording the surgical process, as well as Dr. Gross’ words. Eakins himself can be seen to the viewer’s far right, sitting in the audience and presumably sketching his observations.

As if the words “incision” and “retractor” aren’t making it obvious, we should note that the scene represented here in The Gross Clinic is rather explicit - Eakins has given the viewer full, visual access to the scene, and that includes the gory details of the surgery taking place-- bloody instruments, bloody hands, and gaping the gaping wound. It’s not like a horror film by any circumstances, but to those who might be squeamish, it’s clear that the title of the painting could very well serve a double meaning. But for most of the individuals present in the scene, it’s no big deal-- perhaps just another day in med school, under the tutelage of Dr. Gross. But while the students look down at the operation with relaxed, perhaps even bored expressions, there is one figure sitting closer to the foreground who cannot bear to watch. Shielded by the figure’s left arm, this person’s face is turned away, clearly repulsed or terrified by the scene-- or both. Art historians have often identified this figure as the patient’s mother, a woman decked in black and obviously not doing very well under the circumstances. We’ll come back to this lady a bit later, don’t you worry. But for now, let’s move on.

The story of how The Gross Clinic came about is an interesting one. The work was created with one single event in mind-- the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Formally called the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine (and less formally called “the Centennial”), this fair aimed to showcase the economic and technological progress that had been made in America since the Civil War, while also celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It was the first of many “world’s fairs” held on American soil, and sought to prove that the accomplishments and advancements made in the United States were on par with those made in Europe. Throughout the fair’s six-month long duration, over 9 million visitors would end up visiting the exposition to demonstrate their patriotism and celebrate a post-Civil War nation.And though Thomas Eakins obviously could not know the extent of popularity of the Centennial, he--and the organizers and general public alike-- knew it was a big deal. And Eakins wanted to get in on the action.  And he had what he thought would be the perfect addition to the fair. As a Philadelphia-native, Eakins was eager to present The Gross Clinic at the Centennial, for the nationally-renowned Dr. Gross also hailed from the City of Brotherly Love and taught nearby at Jefferson Medical College. This was Eakins’ opportunity to not only honor Dr. Gross and his accomplishments to the medical field at large, but also to express pride in the city he called home. And it didn’t hurt that the work of art could be a virtuoso scene that would equally show Eakins’s skill at portraiture, anatomy, and dramatic genre scenes, all while doing so on a monumental scale of more than seven feet high and more than six feet across. The Gross Clinic-- his new masterpiece, seemed ready-made for the fair and he presented it to the Committee of Selection for the Centennial. And they were less than enthused.

You can probably imagine what happened next. And that’s coming right up,  after this break. Stay with us.


Welcome back to ArtCurious.


Due primarily to its subject matter, the Centennial Committee decided against accepting The Gross Clinic to the Centennial’s art exhibition, and its rejection was a serious blow to Thomas Eakins. But he was bound and determined to have the work seen-- anywhere it could be-- and so he scrambled for an exhibition space. And so, for a year and a half, it hung in a room designated for holding medical supplies, seen by few and actually appreciated by fewer. Still, one art critic gave the artist high praise and felt it was unfortunate that the painting had been relegated to a mere wall in a hospital, writing: “There is nothing so fine in the American section of the Art Department of the Exhibition, and it is with great pity that the squeamishness of the Selection Committee compelled the artist to find a place in the United States Hospital Building.” This same critic noted with disdain that even the American art that had been accepted to the Centennial was scarcely discussed in the press-- art just wasn’t the big deal at the fair, and what a disappointment and a lack of foresight of our young country that they didn’t consider it more integral.

After nearly two years of languishing behind scalpels and retractors at the Army Hospital, The Gross Clinic was acquired by the Jefferson Medical College, which makes perfect sense, since Dr. Gross himself both attended the college and sat as the Co-Chair of the Department of Surgery. For the realistic rendition of their nationally-famed and locally-loved doctor, the school was grateful-- and thus they were willing to work with Thomas Eakins to have the work seen and shown elsewhere. So, in 1879, Eakins borrowed the painting back and exhibited it at the Kurtz Gallery in New York, with hopes that with the passage of four years and in an entirely different city, both the artist-- and his hometown-- would finally begin to attract the press’ attention.

And that it did, almost immediately. The phrases “decidedly unpleasant,” “wholly hostile,” and “dreadful” were only a few of the scathing words used to describe Eakins’ work. Like the exhibition committee of the Centennial a few years prior, these new viewers were appalled and horrified by the sight of fresh blood oozing onto the surgeons’ hands (I have never been so grateful for the invention of latex gloves as I am when viewing this work, by the by). They were disgusted by the cold, metal tools prying open what an author from the New York Tribune described as “a long and shapeless lump of flesh.” It wasn’t all bad, of course. Eakins is a skilled portraitist, and his detail of each and every figure-- even the less-visible or blurred students in the operating theater-- is bonkers good. Dr. Gross was a real-live person, and he looks it. The observational skills and preparations needed to make this work come to fruition were stunning, and art critics, at the very least, were laudatory in this case. But there was something besides the blood that they patently didn’t like at all:  the artist’s decision to include the patient’s mother in the scene. First of all, critics noted that in an otherwise scientifically realistic scene, the inclusion of a mother watching her son’s surgery so closely would not only be unrealistic, but it would be outright cruel. Similarly, her disgust, many reviewers felt, needed not be a part of an already gruesome scene. I can’t say for sure if the patient’s mother really was in the operating theater when Eakins witnessed and sketched this scene, but she probably wasn’t. So did Eakins include her just to ratchet up the drama? Oh, probably. But it’s not like it needed it. Even the depiction of the patient’s bare thigh, let alone the blood, was deemed a step too far, with some calling it improper for an artist to portray the body as explicitly uncovered, laid bare, laid open, literally. To this, I’ve gotta say, “Well, okay, but how else would you expect someone to undergo a surgery?” --but whatever, I’m not a medical doctor. Suffice to say: people didn’t like what was being presented to them. Even The New York Times got in on the action, critiquing Eakins by noting, “This violent and bloody scene shows that at the time it was painted, if not now, the artist had no conception of where to stop, or how to hint a horrible thing if it must be said, or what the limits are between the beauty of the nude and the indecency of the naked.” Thomas Eakins had hoped to show the painting in New York City, a town seen as more cultured and advanced, as far as art acceptance was concerned, but he found as little support there as he did back home in Philadelphia. To paint such a ghastly scene and dare call it art was a ludicrous claim, to contemporary audiences, and in both locations Eakins’ reputation was growing more and more tarnished with every negative review.

All of this negativity, though, does make me wonder if it all really ever even mattered. Two axioms come to mind when I think about this work-- the first is that old news adage, “If it bleeds, it leads,” meaning that the more terrible or violent the crime or subject matter, the more attention will be spent upon it. The second is that no publicity is bad publicity, so even if Eakins’s work wasn’t getting love left and right from the general public or the art critics, it was, at the very least, being discussed, and discussed heavily. And if they’re talking about you, that means you’re making an impact. Certainly I don’t think that Thomas Eakins painted The Gross Clinic as an attention-grab, upping the gore factor simply to get tongues wagging. But it’s nevertheless a reminder that all of these shocking works of art that we are talking about this season (and last) on the ArtCurious Podcast-- there’s a reason we’re still talking about them. They got attention, good or bad, for their shock value. And that still means something, even today, when any number of cable TV shows and video games featuring far more violence and blood seem to have far less of an impact. The Gross Clinic might not look like a big deal from our current perspective, but that’s one of the things that’s so interesting about it: to see how far we’ve come, how times have changed, how a single painting can no longer disgust or horrify.

After living its life at the Jefferson Medical College until 2006, The Gross Clinic is now a part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s permanent collection, along with Eakins’ studies of Dr. Gross and Dr. Barton’s heads, and preliminary sketches made for the final work, all which provide nice context to the development of the final piece itself. Although the value of this work has finally been realized by modern-day art historians, its controversial past is what truly makes it all the more compelling. It is remarkable to think that a painting that was once too unbearable for the public to see is now called, by many, “the greatest American painting of all time.”

Thank you for listening to the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, with additional writing and research help by Adria Gunter. Our theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com, our logo is by Dave Rainey at daveraineydesign.com, and social media help is by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at kaboonki.com. Additional editing help by Hannah Roberts.

The ArtCurious Podcast is sponsored primarily by Anchorlight. Anchorlight is a creative space, founded with the intent of fostering artists, designers, and craftspeople at varying stages of their development. Home to artist studios, residency opportunities, and exhibition space Anchorlight encourages mentorship and the cross-pollination of skills among creatives in the Triangle.  please visit Anchorlightraleigh.com.

The ArtCurious Podcast is also fiscally sponsored by VAE Raleigh, a 501c3 nonprofit creativity incubator. For more details about our show, including the image mentioned in this episode today, please visit our website: artcuriouspodcast.com. We’re also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at artcuriouspod.


Check back in two weeks as we continue to explore the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in the shocking works of  art history.

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