Gross Clinic (The)


Gross Clinic Portrait
The Gross Clinic, painted in 1875 by Thomas Eakins, depicts thigh surgery in progress as Dr. Samuel D. Gross delivers a surgical lecture to students of Jefferson Medical College. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The Gross Clinic, painted in 1875 by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), is among the most highly regarded American artworks from the nineteenth century. It is a portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (1805-84), an internationally celebrated surgeon who taught at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia from 1856 to 1882. Created by a local artist and depicting a famous local doctor, the monumental painting bears a special connection to Philadelphia.

The portrait shows Dr. Gross conducting an innovative medical procedure: a surgery to remove infected bone from his patient’s thigh. It is an intense scene with many participants. To the right, five young doctors attend to the patient. While W. Joseph Hearn (1842-1917) applies a sedating chloroform compress to the patient’s face, Charles S. Briggs (1851-1920) stabilizes the small body. Daniel Appel  (1854-1914) and an unidentifiable doctor hidden behind Dr. Gross pull back the patient’s flesh, while James M. Barton (1846-?) clears blood from the site of the incision. To the left, a seated woman, possibly the patient’s mother, turns away from the scene and shields her face in horror. At a lectern above the operating area, Dr. Franklin West (1851-77) takes notes for the medical record. In the background, in shadow, medical students and other onlookers observe the scene–some with intrigue and some with boredom. Eakins watches from the audience, too. He sits pencil-in-hand, cropped by the right edge of the canvas. Near the center of the image Dr. Gross, lit from above, pauses as he looks away from the surgery while holding a bloody scalpel in his hand. Dramatic lighting, thoughtful composition, masterful modeling of tones, and confident brushwork heighten the potency of the image.

Scholars have connected this scene to historical depictions of anatomy lessons including The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Velpeau (1864), by F.N.A. Feyen-Perrin (1829-88). Unlike Feyen-Perrin’s painting, which shows doctors dissecting a cadaver, Eakins’s work notably presents a doctor performing limb-saving surgery on a living patient. This distinction would not have been lost on Eakins, who was interested in science, medicine, and technology, and who painted portraits of leaders in those fields. He additionally studied anatomy, observed surgeries, and used photography in his art practice to better understand the human body and enhance the realism of his paintings.

Exhibition and Critical Reception

As a prominent medical writer and lecturer during the nineteenth century, Samuel D. Gross served the medical students at Jefferson Medical College for a majority of his career. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
As a prominent medical writer and lecturer during the nineteenth century, Dr. Samuel D. Gross taught medical students at Jefferson Medical College for a majority of his career. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Eakins painted The Gross Clinic as a submission for the Centennial Exhibition, the world’s fair that Philadelphia hosted in 1876. Philadelphia led the nation in medical innovation and practice during the nineteenth century, so an expertly painted portrait of the city’s most famous living surgeon at work could have excellently showcased Philadelphia’s local achievements and national significance at the fair. Jury members rejected the painting from the fine arts exhibition, however, because they found the scene too disturbing. The Gross Clinic was displayed instead among other medicine-themed items in the U.S. Army Post Hospital exhibit.

Critics initially responded to the painting with mixed reactions. Some praised Eakins’s ability to render figures, although they deemed his depiction of the patient too visually confusing. Viewers frequently noted the way Eakins captured the drama of surgery, but they found the painting’s goriness distasteful. In 1878 the Jefferson alumni association purchased the painting for $200. The artwork was exhibited nationally three times in the next two decades, but it did not receive widespread praise until writers championed it in memorial catalogues published shortly after Eakins’s death in 1916.

In the years since, scholars have interpreted the painting in a number of ways. Focusing on Dr. Gross and the history of medicine in Philadelphia, the painting is a heroic portrait of a leader in the field of surgery. Interpreted through the lens of psychoanalysis, the painting provides an anxious commentary on the relationship between painting and writing in the nineteenth century. Analyses of the ambiguously gendered patient and the changing critical reception of the painting have offered insight into nineteenth-century ideas about gender and sexuality. The painting is discussed most frequently as an icon of American art. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it made a strong case that American painting could be as sophisticated as any European artwork.

Twenty-first Century Significance

For over a century the painting’s main home was at Jefferson, where it was a fixture for students and faculty. The Gross Clinic became the subject of expanded public interest in November 2006, when the school announced plans to sell the painting to raise funds for new medical and education facilities. The Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., offered to purchase the painting for $68 million. The arrangement stipulated that a local organization could buy the painting instead if it could match the agreed-upon price within the short period of forty-five days.

Eakins portrait
The painter Thomas Eakins was born in Philadelphia in 1844 and spent the majority of his life and career in the city. He died in 1916 at his lifelong home at 1729 Mount Vernon Street. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Almost immediately, a local grassroots effort to keep the painting in the city emerged. Soon after, several Philadelphia institutions collaborated to launch a major fund-raising campaign to enable the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to jointly purchase the painting. Leaders of these movements argued that The Gross Clinic was a Philadelphia icon that needed to remain in the city with which it was most strongly affiliated. Local media outlets provided educational information about the painting and daily updates on the fundraising effort, while area residents and other concerned individuals wrote countless blog posts and letters to the editor to share their feelings about the artwork. Taken together, these activities propelled a swell of civic pride. A desire to defend Philadelphia’s reputation and assert its role as a significant cultural center fueled the fervor for protecting this piece of the city’s cultural heritage. Over 3,600 individuals donated money in support of the effort. The museum and the academy raised additional funds by selling objects deemed less central to their collections. In 2007 the two institutions jointly purchased The Gross Clinic, made plans to exhibit it at each location on a rotating basis, and enabled a local icon to remain in Philadelphia.

Laura Holzman is Assistant Professor of Art History and Museum Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Research assistant Catherine Harmon aided in determining lifespan dates for individuals depicted in the painting. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University


The Gross Clinic

Philadelphia Museum of Art

In Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic, the artist puts a spotlight on its star, Dr. Samuel D. Gross, who demonstrates surgery to the darkened theater. In this moment, Eakins captures varying levels of intensity as all witness the surgical removal of a patient’s infected bone. We can see five younger residents performing their duties. One sedates the patient with chloroform while others monitor the incision and patient. The viewer is taken behind the surgical team through a slightly brightened doorway and up into the seated audience. Dr. Franklin West (left center) annotates the operation, his pencil mirroring Dr. Gross’ scalpel, effectively connecting the two actions as high intellectual pursuits. Eakins put himself in the scene, partly visible along the right side of the painting, drawing pencil in hand.

The success of the surgical procedure affirmed two things: Surgery on living people was feasible and Philadelphia was the birthplace of innovation. Gross was Jefferson Medical College’s celebrated surgeon, and one that the city had reason to celebrate in a painting by a fellow Philadelphian. The painting was done for the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 but was rejected by the jury, which considered the scene too gory. It was hung, instead, in the U.S. Army Post Hospital exhibit. The painting was later acquired by the medical college and became an object of civic pride that the city almost lost in 2007 when the school, now Thomas Jefferson University, nearly sold it to a partnership between the National Gallery and the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas. A campaign arose to keep the painting in Philadelphia, and more than 3,600 donors came forward to help purchase the work, which is shared between the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Thomas Eakins

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) was a painter, photographer, and sculptor, born and active in Philadelphia. He received artistic training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, as well as in France at the École des Beaux-Arts and in Spain from the portrait painter Léon Bonnat. Additionally, he attended anatomy and dissection courses at Jefferson Medical College.

Eakins returned to Philadelphia in 1870, having solidified his style of realism in portraying the human figure, focusing on athletic and domestic subjects in a variety of outdoor and interior scenes. His yearlong project to complete The Gross Clinic for the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 earned him notoriety, controversy, and a faculty position at his alma mater.

Eakins famously taught his female students from the male nude, a practice that forced his resignation because it violated the prevailing standards of nineteenth-century art academies. He continued to paint scenes of boxers and other athletes and, in 1889, revisited the subject of surgery and the nude when he painted The Agnew Clinic to honor retiring University of Pennsylvania professor D. Hayes Agnew.

Eakins Oil Sketch of Dr. Gross

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Eakins produced oil sketches in preparation for painting The Gross Clinic. This draft carries a sense of hurriedness in showing a barely recognizable Dr. Gross at the operating table. Eakins used the sketch to make compositional decisions with light, shadow, and color before he could replicate the shapes of his subjects and their surroundings or install a sense of perspective. In examining the final version of The Gross Clinic, the viewer can find Eakins seated in the amphitheater, taking notes or making one of many preparatory images.

Eakins House

Library of Congress

Thomas Eakins was a lifelong Philadelphian. He inherited his childhood home from his parents, Caroline and Benjamin Eakins, and lived there until his death in 1916. A PBS documentary on the artist mentions that his parents built the fourth story atop the three-store brick home to provide a studio for Eakins. The home is at 1727-29 Mount Vernon Street in the Spring Garden section of Philadelphia. In 1965, the building was named a national historical landmark and today it is home to the city's Mural Arts Program.

Dr. Samuel D. Gross

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Graduating from Jefferson Medical College at the age of twenty-one in 1826, Samuel D. Gross spent his life educating medical professionals through his lectures and published works. Gross's career as a medical educator led him to positions in the Medical College of Ohio, the Louisville Medical Institute in Kentucky, and the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. Generations of medical students learned from Gross's lectures and medical demonstrations, and hundreds of thousands more learned from his published works. Gross began to write books of medical diagnosis and his procedures beginning in 1830.

The celebrated 1875 painting by Thomas Eakins titled The Gross Clinic depicted Gross speaking to medical students as he and his team operated on a patient—an image many considered shocking to sensibilities of the era. Gross continued to write medical materials and teach until his death in 1884.

(Text above drawn from Autobiography of Samuel Gross)

The American photographer Frederick Gutekunst took this picture of Gross in 1875, the same year Eakins was painting the doctor in anticipation of the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. The photographer's gallery was at 712 Arch Street in Philadelphia, just a few blocks from Gross's base at Jefferson Medical College.

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Related Reading

Berger, Martin A. Man Made: Thomas Eakins and the Construction of Gilded Age Manhood. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Doyle, Jennifer. “Sex, Scandal, and Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic.” Representations, no. 68 (1999), 1-33.
Foster, Kathleen A. and Mark S. Tucker, eds. An Eakins Masterpiece Restored: Seeing The Gross Clinic Anew. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2012.
Fried, Michael. Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Johns, Elizabeth. Thomas Eakins, The Heroism of Modern Life. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. 46-81.

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