“I never knew of but one artist, and this is Tom Eakins, who could resist the temptation to see what they think ought to be rather than what is. ” – Walt Whitman Thomas Eakins, was one the most important painters of American Art History. He also was an photographer, sculptor, and fine arts educator. In this essay, you will explore his life, his works and one of his most famous paintings’ which considered shocking by viewers: The Gross Clinic. Thomas Eakins was born in 1844, he lived most of his life in his home city of Philadelphia.
After graduating high school he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He simultaneously took anatomy courses at Jefferson Medical College, in the hopes of creating more realistic pictures and gaining further insight into the human figure. In 1866 he left Philadelphia for Paris and later Spain, where he studied art and found the works of painters Diego Velasquez and Jusepe de Ribera. Along with Rembrant, these painters would be his greatest influences.
A year later he returned to Philadelphia, never to go abroad again.
Throughout the 1870s Eakins painted the interior and exterior life of everyday America. He was concerned with the functioning of the physical world, as well as the inner lives of the people he painted. His paintings were both realistic and expressive. His attention to light, landscape, and the human form made Eakins stand far above his contemporaries. Among the most famous paintings of the time are his group portraits made at medical schools. Striking in their honesty and strict attention paid to the details of the human body, they shocked many in and out of the art world.
In the 1880s, Eakins’ interest in realism brought him in contact with the photographer Edward Muybridge. The two collaborated on photographing the movement of animals and humans. Though few painters took it seriously, Eakins believed the new photographic technology was a tool to better represent the physical world. Throughout much of the 1880s, Eakins brought these interests to students at the Pennsylvania Academy, encouraging them to study anatomy and work from live nude models. In 1886 his insistence on the use of nude models saw a great deal of criticism.
Frustrated with the criticism, he eventually resigned. Though he continued to teach at a number of different colleges, it wasn’t until long after his death that Eakins’ innovations in art education were recognized and adopted throughout the country. By the 1890s he had moved from his earlier outdoor works like “Max Schmitt in a Single Scull,” (1871), a perfectly rendered quiet picture of a rower on the Schuylkill River, to portraiture. In the many portraits completed over the last thirty years of his life, Eakins retained his passionate adherence to realist representation.
Unlike most other portrait painters of the time, Eakins had little concern for flattering his subjects , and instead demanded from himself the most precise objective images. The results were thorough and telling portraits that seemed to carry with them the souls of their subjects. During the final years of his life, Eakins began to receive a bit of the recognition he deserved. On June 25, 1916 he died in the Philadelphia home in which he was born. Against social demands for propriety and respectability, Eakins refused to compromise and painted his subjects as they really were, and not as they wished to be seen.
His paintings reflected the passing of time, the awareness of mortality, and the nobility of everyday life. His courageous persistence in advocating his personal vision changed the nature of art education and provided future generations with a deeper view of the time in which he lived. The Gross Clinic by Eakins, is one of the most famous paintings of American art history. It is oil on canvas, it measures 8 feet by 6. 5 feet. The Gross Clinic was painted in 1875, and originally entitled “Portrait of Dr. Gross”. At the time, Dr. Gross was a world-famous surgeon practicing at Jefferson Hospital.
The canvas depicts him performing a surgery in the University ampitheatre. He is removing a portion of a diseased bone from the thigh of a 14-year-old boy, whose mother looks on in horror. His son stands in the doorway, and Eakins himself is seated in the gallery on the right side of the painting. There are 28 portraits in the painting — all depictions of actual individuals. The painting was considered shocking in its day, and indeed still inspires shock in the viewer who first sees it. As chair of surgery from 1856 to 1882, Dr.
Gross inspired thousands of Jefferson medical students and assistants with his articulate lectures, calm judgment, mechanical dexterity, and contributions to surgical technique. Gross was author or editor of hundreds of articles and many books. His two-volume System of Surgery of 1859, perhaps his best known work, appeared in six editions and in several foreign languages. Gross was deeply involved in local, national, and international medical societies and was a founder and office holder of many. Thomas Eakins was aged thirty-one and had never before attempted such an ambitious composition when he requested Dr.
Gross, then seventy years old and at the pinnacle of his profession in 1875, to approve his conception for a portrait of the physician in his surgical clinic. The young artist’s confidence must have stemmed from his knowledge of anatomy and his prior experiences in the medical environment. He hoped to establish his professional reputation by displaying this heroic work in the art gallery of the upcoming Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, which aimed to celebrate American progress and excellence. Gross exemplified these patriotic ideals.
The graphic scene of clinical instruction takes place in a surgical amphitheater, the upper lecture room of Jefferson’s Medical Hall. The commanding figure of Samuel D. Gross stands at the apex of a group consisting of his surgical assistants, the patient, and the patient’s mother. Seated to the left and behind Dr. Gross is a clinic clerk who records operative notes. In the background are tiers of students observing the proceedings. A table with bandages and a box of surgical instruments is in the foreground. The two figures standing in the tunnel are an orderly, on the left, and Dr.
Gross’s son, the surgeon Samuel W. Gross, on the right. The first figure seated to the right of the tunnel is a self-portrait of Thomas Eakins sketching or writing. Professor Gross has turned away from the operative site to explain the procedure for removing a segment of diseased bone from the left thigh of the patient who suffers from osteomyelitis. The adolescent male patient lies on his right side on bright white sheets. His hips and knees are bent so that his body is greatly foreshortened. His buttocks and left thigh are the only exposed areas of his body. His feet are clad in thick gray socks.
His head is concealed under the chloroform-soaked towel held by the anesthetist at the head of the operating table. Four other assistants (one is partially obscured behind Gross) hold a retractor or tenaculum to expose or probe the wound. ) All figures but one are intensely engaged in participating in or observing the operation. The veiled woman, traditionally identified as the patient’s mother, is so distraught that she shrinks away in horror, covering her eyes with tensely clenched, clawlike hands. Her fright is palpable although ironic, because her son’s life was not in danger and the humane procedure would save his leg from amputation.
Like the other participants Dr. Gross is garbed in black business clothes, as was customary then. The forehead of his magnificently delineated head is bathed in light pouring down from the skylight above, his wiry hair creating a silver aura around his face. His angular features are sculpturally defined by the dramatic contrasts of bright light and deep shade. The painting’s single bright color is the emphatic red of fresh blood oozing from the patient’s wound and staining the surgeons’ hands and linens. The blood is especially lustrous on Dr. Gross’s right hand which holds a scalpel.
In Eakins’s time most critics found the mother’s gesture overly melodramatic. With few exceptions the critics and public complained that such an operation was an inappropriate subject for a painting, and the bloody scene too realistic to be accepted for display by polite Victorian society. The New York Tribune reporter said, “It is a picture that even strong men find it difficult to look at long, if they can look at it at all; and as for people with nerves and stomachs, the scene is so real that they might as well go to a dissecting room and have done with it. The bold and innovative painting was rejected by the committee of selection for the Centennial’s art exhibition, although five other Eakins works were accepted. Instead it was eventually shown at the U. S. Army Post Hospital, a model hospital that was an annex to the U. S. Government’s display at the fair.
This alternative site was probably found through the influence of Dr. Gross. He must have realized that The Gross Clinic’s multiple portraits of Jefferson faculty members operating in the surgical amphitheater could urther enhance the reputation of Jefferson Medical College in the history of American surgery. The painting was purchased by the college for two hundred dollars in 1878. Ironically anticipating The Gross Clinic’s popular success, Eakins copyrighted the work in 1876 and arranged for an unknown quantity of high-quality, photomechanical reproductions of it. He exhibited the reproduction a few times and gave several to friends. A recently discovered collotype in the Jefferson collection is signed by the artist and inscribed to Dr. Edward A.
Spitzka, the professor of general anatomy from 1905 to 1914. The Gross Clinic depicts a heroic physician calmly performing the multiple tasks of instructing students, training assistants, and operating on a patient. Today the once maligned picture is celebrated as a great nineteenth-century medical history painting, featuring one of the most superb portraits in American art. The monumental composition still has the power to shock viewers with the artist’s bravura paint style and the bold matter-of-factness and immediacy of the action.
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