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Philadelphia Treasures Eakins’s Gross Clinic and Saint-Gaudens’s Angel of Purity

August 2, 2008–July 19, 2009

The Museum welcomes two masterpieces made for Philadelphia by two of nineteenth-century America's finest artists, Thomas Eakins and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Close contemporaries and friends, they both trained in Paris and traveled in Europe before returning to the United States about 1870 to begin distinguished careers. Sharing a belief in the expressive power of the human body as a subject for modern painting and sculpture, they developed different styles. Eakins, committed to the depiction of contemporary life, celebrated the heroes of his own day—as in The Gross Clinic—in a grand and unsparing realism evoking the Dutch and Spanish masters of the seventeenth century. Saint-Gaudens, trained in the same tradition of naturalism and life study, fused the real with the ideal—as in The Angel of Purity—following the poetic spirit of neoclassicism. At the peak of their accomplishment in these two works, both masters demonstrate the power of great public art to stir profound and complex emotions grounded in themes of human life and death. Installed in public spaces in Philadelphia for more than a century, these two extraordinary works of art will continue to inspire audiences here, thanks to the support of many donors rallied by the Museum's dedicated director, Anne d'Harnoncourt (1943–2008), who worked tirelessly to secure both treasures for the city.

Thomas Eakins's The Gross Clinic

Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), acclaimed as the greatest American painting of the nineteenth century, has been an icon of Philadelphia since it was painted in 1875. The masterpiece of the young Thomas Eakins, an artist born and educated in Philadelphia, this painting sparked both controversy and praise at its first showing here in Philadelphia at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876, demonstrating the drama and force of character that set the tone for Eakins's entire career. His masterful realism and his insistence on painting from modern American life shocked his contemporaries. More than a century later, his paintings of Schuylkill River oarsmen, Delaware River fishermen, and local painters, poets, priests, scientists, and educators have indelibly shaped a sense of Philadelphia's identity—and its excellence in many professional fields. Recognized in Eakins's lifetime as his greatest work, The Gross Clinic has gained stature since his death in 1916 as one of the most often reproduced, discussed, and celebrated paintings in American art history. In Philadelphia, it has come to represent the spirit and accomplishment of both the city and its most famous artist. Purchased from Eakins for two hundred dollars and given to Jefferson Medical College by alumni in 1878, the painting has been a source of inspiration to generations of students and doctors at Jefferson, and a pilgrimage site for visitors. In its decision to sell The Gross Clinic in 2006, Thomas Jefferson University offered Philadelphia institutions the right to match the price and acquire the painting, prompting an unprecedented outpouring of support to keep the masterpiece in the city. The painting is now jointly owned by and exhibited in alternation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where the richness of history and context will deepen the meaning of this great work of art—a national treasure in its native city.

August Saint-Gaudens's Angel of Purity

Beautiful and solemn, August Saint-Gaudens's marble Angel of Purity (Maria Mitchell Memorial) commemorates the spirit of Maria Gouverneur Mitchell, who died of diptheria in Philadelphia in 1898, at the age of twenty-two. Her bereft parents, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell and Mary Cadwalader Mitchell, commissioned this monument for Saint Stephen's Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, where Maria taught children's classes. For Mitchell, a famous doctor and writer, and especially for his wife, this sculpture represented to their family, their church, and their city the "singularly sweet and blameless life" of their daughter, the grief of her parents, and the solace found in both art and faith. When approached by Dr. Mitchell, Saint-Gaudens declined the commission at first, noting that he had "work on hand for two lifetimes." Then Mrs. Mitchell wrote a second appeal. "What she said I do not know," wrote Dr. Mitchell later, "but he replied by saying ‘I shall throw aside all other work until I have done this thing for you.'" As Mitchell remembered, "This exquisite monument satisfied Mrs. Mitchell, and nothing could exceed the kindness and care and effort he gave to the whole business . . . I think a sweeter gentleman I never knew, nor one so magnanimous about his fellow-artists, nor any so capable of putting the high poetry of his imagination into marble." The sculpture was completed in 1902 and installed in Saint Stephen's church, opposite the Cadwalader family pew, in 1903. A century later, the church found its congregation and endowment dwindling, and the sculpture was removed for sale. To save this masterpiece for Philadelphia, the Museum turned to the Annenberg Fund for Major Acquisitions, created by The Annenberg Foundation in response to a goal of the Museum's 125th Anniversary Campaign. Radiant after treatment by the Museum's conservators, the marble poetry of The Angel of Purity returns to the public.

Silas Weir Mitchell (1829–1914)

Famed doctor, novelist, and poet S. Weir Mitchell links the two masterpieces in this exhibition: friend of both Eakins and Saint-Gaudens, he stood within the overlapping circles of science and art in Philadelphia at the turn of the twentieth century. Born in this city and educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Jefferson Medical College, Mitchell became a specialist in nervous diseases and psychological disorders. One of the inventors of the "rest cure" and the "camp cure," he may have advised Eakins in the 1880s, when he was brought low by stress and depression. Earlier, Mitchell lent Eakins the Chippendale chair that appears in several paintings and sculptures, including William Rush Carving of 1878, and Eakins gave him a watercolor of a hunting scene, probably knowing Mitchell's enthusiasm as a sportsman. In 1889, representing the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, Mitchell accepted the gift of Eakins's painting, The Agnew Clinic (on view in gallery 116, on loan from the University's Medical School). As a celebrated scientist and man of letters, Mitchell was often painted and sculpted, usually by elegant and fashionable artists such as John Singer Sargent and Robert Vonnoh. Perhaps wary of Eakins's unsparing realism, he never posed for him, but he did sit for a relief portrait by Saint-Gaudens in 1884, beginning a friendship that led him to invite the sculptor to undertake a memorial to his daughter in 1901.

Main Building


Kathleen Foster • The Robert L. McNeil, Jr., Senior Curator of American Art and Director, Center for American Art

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