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Eakins In Light And Shadow
The man who may be America’s greatest artist liked to fend off the curious with the statement “My life is all in my works. ” He was right, but the works and the life take on new poignance with the release and exhibition of a once-private collection of his letters, photographs, and sketchbooks.
September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
The portrait of Professor Gross, now known as The Gross Clinic , is one of the most extraordinary and powerful pictures in the whole of American art—at once the portrait of an individual man and of the highly charged work in which he is engaged. The notion of painting a portrait of someone in his professional surroundings—defining a man by what he did—had become fairly common in the latter part of the nineteenth century. But the unflinching realism, emotional intensity, and underlying sense of mystery of this picture raise Dr. Gross’s activity to a kind of metaphor. It seems to be a visualization of Gross’s own statement that “surgery is not a sinecure, but a most corroding, soul-disturbing profession.”
Again, the painting seems to reflect not only Eakins’s admiration for Dr. Gross but his own professional concerns. A surgeon, like an artist, has to combine both intellectual and manual skills, and an artist, like a surgeon—according to Eakins’s severe ethical code—ought to be able to confront the rawest and most demanding situations life can offer. Indeed, Dr. Gross, with his blood-soaked hand holding the stylus-like scalpel, very much resembles an artist at work on a picture. Even the bright red of the blood, contrasted as it is with the dark tones of the rest of the painting, seems to suggest the creative potential of crimson paint straight from the tube as well as the vital fluid of life.
Eakins had planned for the painting to be shown at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, which was to open at Fairmount Park on May 10. But to his chagrin, the fair’s fine arts selection committee considered the subject and rendering of The Gross Clinic too raw and refused to show it. The blood on Dr. Gross’s hand was considered especially provocative. Instead, Eakins exhibited the painting at the Haseltine Galleries toward the end of April, just before the Centennial Exhibition opened. It was praised by the critic William Clark, who called it “a great work” and even went so far as to say, “We know of nothing greater that has ever been executed in America.” Eventually the painting managed to get itself shown at the exhibition, but not in the fine arts section. Instead, it was included among the medical exhibits in the U.S. Army Post Hospital—as the portrait of a physician who had written a manual about military surgery.
In a sense the reception of The Gross Clinic was prophetic of the relationship between Eakins and his public in the years to come. Although the painting had been done in part to affirm Philadelphia’s reputation as a major medical center, Eakins’s uncompromising realism was stronger medicine than Philadelphians were willing to accept.
Clark’s assertion that the painting showed Eakins to be “very far in advance of any of his American rivals” turned out to be all too true. The painting fared no better when it was exhibited in New York City a couple of years later. The critic for the Tribune , while acknowledging the skill of the drawing, criticized the picture for having no composition, no color, and “wholly mistaken” aerial perspective. He went on to say that “it is impossible to conceive … what good can be accomplished for art or for anything else by painting or exhibiting such a picture as this.” The Times critic was even more aggressive: “This violent and bloody scene shows that … the artist had no conception of where to stop, or how to hint a horrible thing if it must be said, or what the limits are between the beauty of the nude and indecency of the naked. Power it has, but very little art.”
Eakins’s teaching methods also polarized opinion. By this time he was giving classes at the Sketch Club and at the Pennsylvania Academy School, and he seems to have been a rigorous and demanding teacher, hated by some of his students and adored by others. These early teaching positions were without pay, so in 1879 Eakins was especially pleased to be appointed professor of drawing and painting at the academy, at a salary of six hundred dollars a year. During this time he continued work on his paintings and on his scientific experiments, especially his anatomical explorations and his photography. He corresponded with Eadweard Muybridge, who was taking serial photographs of people and animals in motion, and he painted A May Morning in the Park , one of the first paintings to accurately depict horses in motion.
One picture helps us understand a good deal about Eakins’s early career as a teacher. William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River of 1876-77 can be read as an allegory not only about art but also about the proper way for Philadelphians to respond to it. Rush had been a popular sculptor earlier in the century, and in 1809 he had carved an allegorical figure of the Schuylkill River for the city’s first public fountain, in Centre Square. As was well known, Rush’s model had been Louisa Vanuxem, a young belle from a good Philadelphia family.