The Gross Clinic restoration revisited: What did Thomas Eakins really want?

The Gross Clinic’ restored (2nd review)

5 minute read
The 'halo effect': A glittering distraction?
The 'halo effect': A glittering distraction?
How surprising to see just how new the newly restored Thomas Eakins masterpiece The Gross Clinic really is. It's not just PR. Restored for the first time since 1960, and positioned under dramatic lighting like a holy relic, down a prime corridor of the Perelman Building, it looks like a different painting.

Correction: It is a different painting.

The Art Museum has surrounded it with support: another major Eakins work, The Agnew Clinic; a full-wall display of the Gross portrait's 135-year history, establishing the case for this restoration; a neat electronically active before-and-after illustration; and, finally, a documentary video explaining the decisions and the processes involved in the restoration.

The primary change has darkened a red doorway. At the rear of the amphitheater at whose center the great surgeon Dr. Samuel Gross is conducting a teaching surgery, a doorway opening into the bowels of the building was a fiery red-orange until this cleaning. It was painted over by the restorers with a removable brown wash that greatly subdues the color. To judge from the history presented by the Art Museum, there is a good argument for doing this, including Mrs. Eakins's protests, at one point, that the painting had become too red.

From the sketchy chronology reconstructed in a few photos and prints, it appears that earlier restorers, somewhere around 1920, had concluded the painting must have darkened— and so they lightened the color by removing some layer of Eakins's own overpainting. The thinking at the time was probably that dirt and grime had darkened it— an accurate assessment of many older objects.

A "'material object'

I lack expertise in painting restoration, and, indeed, greatly respect the dedication and effort that went into this work under the direction of Mark Tucker, the Art Museum's senior conservator of paintings. Tucker reminds us, on the museum's website, that a painting is art, sensation and meaning, "but first of all, it is a material object." And this one has gone through a lot, as he details, including nearly tearing across the middle.

But Tucker would almost certainly agree with my next point: We still don't have Thomas Eakins's painting here. The object we have is our current vision of it, as ably enabled as top skills and our present chemical knowledge can make it. But, still, these are the efforts of people living at a particular time, different from the artist's time, and thinking in a particular way— which also may be very different from the artist's way.

A docent or an assistant curator was leading a tour the other day as I stood staring at the canvas. The reverential (and slightly patronizing) tones weren't unexpected, but then she extolled the "halo effect" about the surgeon's head. His light gray, Einsteinish hair does contribute to that effect, but so does the odd glitter of individual oil strokes that seem to be restoration touch-ups used to darken areas worn too light in previous cleanings.

Stainless-steel aura

It makes for a glittering optical distraction, probably worsened by the spotlighting, but in any case far from the subdued tonalities that Eakins sought on most of his canvases. The whole foreground, in which the principal action occurs, seems antiseptic now. The whites and blacks emanate a stainless-steel aura like today's fashion in kitchen appliances.

The restoration also lost nuances in the assisting doctors' faces, and especially their hair, whose highlights now look cartoonish.

Now for my confession: I enjoyed the earlier version, which was the first way I saw this dramatic painting. The red hallway may have overemphasized it, but it did catch something Eakins put on there. And that is a religious overtone that this painter— whom we like to think of as an apostle of all that was modern, scientific and progressive— couldn't escape.

Hell, lurking in the distance

That red glow looked like hell lurking in the distance. Perhaps it represented a place, or the embodiment of a philosophy, from which these medical pioneers were trying to escape. Or, perhaps, and equally possible, a fate that still lurked in Eakins's subconscious as a potential price to be paid, some day, for the hidden world that lies behind the hubris also captured by the painter in Dr. Gross's satisfied look and pose while his underlings finish the work.

Today's fashions are unfriendly toward such thinking, but Eakins was a complicated personality— much more complicated, we've been discovering, than the earlier heroic image made of him. We overemphasize his scientific aspect, because that's how we think of ourselves. There were many sides to Eakins, however.

Better or worse?

The curators complain that the lurid glow, as restorers enabled it once, battled with the composition focused on Gross. But that fundamental element has been there all the time, from Eakins's first draft, so to speak; and I'm glad I saw that painting in its prior displays at the Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy, before it got disappeared by the professionals. It helped me understand more clearly the balances and counter-balances that went into the original.

You can argue that this new version is better than that version; but you can't argue that this is Eakins's picture. It's merely a variant that captures today's fashions— just as that 1920 restoration was in its own day.♦

To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.

What, When, Where

“Seeing The Gross Clinic Anew.†Through January 9, 2011 at the Perelman Building, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Ben Franklin Parkway and 26th St. (215) 763-8100 or After January 9, 2011 at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Broad and Cherry Sts.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation