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Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic

January 5–March 4, 2007

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' entire career. His masterful realism and his insistence on painting from modern American life shocked his contemporaries.

Recognized in Eakins' lifetime as his greatest work, Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (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 $200 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 Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 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 will be 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.

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About the Artist

Born in Philadelphia in 1844, Thomas Eakins enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1862, a year after his graduation from the city's Central High School. He also attended anatomy classes at Jefferson Medical College, participating in dissections and observing surgeries in order to better understand how the body works, a knowledge he thought was crucial for an artist's development. He then traveled to Paris in 1866 to continue his artistic training. At the École des Beaux-Arts, under the supervision of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Eakins developed an appreciation for the human figure that would guide his work throughout his career.

"As a teacher, he was both admired and condemned for his radical beliefs, particularly his emphasis on anatomical dissection and the study of the nude."

Eakins returned to Philadelphia in 1870 and spent the rest of his life depicting the city and its people. His immersion in his community is reflected in his well-known sporting pictures showing rowers along the Schuylkill River and sailboats on the Delaware, and in his incisive portraits of family, friends, and prominent Philadelphians. Although his talent was widely acknowledged, critics often disapproved of his modern subjects and painstakingly realist style.

He began to teach at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1876 and was made professor of painting and drawing three years later; after 1882, when he was appointed director, he completed his transformation of the curriculum in keeping with his own realist methods. As a teacher, he was both admired and condemned for his radical beliefs, particularly his emphasis on anatomical dissection and the study of the nude. Controversy over Eakins' removal of a loincloth from a male model prompted a scandal that led to his forced resignation from the Academy in 1886.

After 1886 Eakins increasingly turned to portraiture, although his penetrating character studies usually failed to flatter his sitters and he won few commissions. Honored, as he bitterly noted in 1894, by "misunderstanding, persecution and neglect" in his lifetime, he is now recognized as one of this country's greatest artists.


Kathleen Foster, The Robert L. McNeil, Jr., Senior Curator of American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Lynn Marsden-Atlass, Senior Curator, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

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