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Thomas Eakins's The Gross Clinic

The research and rationale behind the completed conservation treatment of The Gross Clinic continues on the following web pages, posted in the fall of 2009 as an introduction to the project during its planning stages. Detailed information about the 2010 conservation treatment is presented as part of the exhibition An Eakins Masterpiece Restored: Seeing The Gross Clinic Anew, and in a documentary film screened in in a theater adjoining the exhibition.

Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic)
Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875
Thomas Eakins, American
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Thomas Eakins's The Gross Clinic

In 1893 Thomas Eakins wrote, “For the public, I believe my life is all in my work.” The historic acquisition in 2007 of Eakins’s masterpiece, The Gross Clinic, by our two institutions, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, demonstrated our commitment to understanding, as deeply as we can, how Eakins is embodied in his work. Working from that knowledge, we are dedicated to preserving his paintings and ensuring that, despite the changes to them brought on by passing years and the interventions of other hands, they speak clearly of the artist’s own talents and wishes. Honoring this responsibility requires the marshaling of the best information and expertise, and the focusing of the best-informed, most sympathetic eyes and minds on The Gross Clinic. Our long and intensive study of Eakins’s personal artistic concerns and the painting’s history and technique has revealed differences between the way the painting looked when Eakins finished it in 1875 and the way it looks today. The actions we may take to bring the two into best agreement will be determined by the quality of information we gather. This website will set out principal elements of that information, and describe what we can do ethically in support of Eakins’s wish that the audience for his work would see his paintings as the best expression of his life.

The conservation of The Gross Clinic, frequently described as the most important American painting of the nineteenth century, can only be described as thrilling and daunting. Thrilling, because we have the opportunity to improve the impact of the painting by alleviating earlier damage to its surface. Daunting, because an image so well known must be carefully handled, and because the whole enterprise opens many questions. What were the artist’s intentions? Can we really recover the appearance of the painting when it was new? Should we even try? Or should we accept the changes in a painting over time as part of the history of the object?

Conscientious conservators and curators, working together, can hope to negotiate among these alternatives, knowing there are rarely clear-cut answers. Often, it is a matter of making many tiny choices, inch by inch, over the surface of the painting. As we launch into the process, we are comforted by the knowledge that any work we do is reversible and can be removed easily and without harm to the painting if any future generation so desires.

Our confidence is buoyed by an experienced team of colleagues, led by the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s head of paintings conservation, Mark Tucker, who has been working on Eakins’s paintings for three decades. His experience examining and treating hundreds of canvases has given him both insight and sensitivity to Eakins’s methods and materials. For this website, we have gathered information about Eakins, the painting, and its first reception at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition of 1876. Mark Tucker has contributed a history of the treatment of the painting and a summary of research that will shape the conservation plan, as it is developed in the fall of 2009. New materials will be posted to this site as the project unfolds. We look forward to the return of the painting to the Museum’s galleries in 2010.

Alice Beamesderfer
Interim Head of Curatorial Affairs, Philadelphia Museum of Art
David Brigham
Edna S. Tuttleman Museum Director, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Kathleen A. Foster
The Robert L. McNeil, Jr., Senior Curator of American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Anna Marley
Curator of Historical American Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Next: The Conservation Project