Didn’t Win? Join the Club (The Rejection of Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic)

Didn’t Win? Join the Club: The Rejection of Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic. The Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition rejected “the finest 19th-century American painting.”

by Jerry N. Weiss

If your painting wasn’t recognized this year, it joined a Master Class, The Artist's Magazinenoteworthy continuum of rejection. There is, for instance, the canvas that a New York Times art critic in 2002 called “hands down, the finest 19th-century American painting.” Initially denied a place in the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, it was finally exhibited, not alongside the other artwork in the exposition, but in an adjacent army hospital.

Of the painting, The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins, a contemporary critic wrote: “… the more we study ‘Professor Gross,’ … the more our wonder grows that it was ever painted, in the first place, and that it was ever exhibited, in the second … No purpose is gained by this morbid exhibition.” The Gross Clinic is a portrait of prominent Philadelphia surgeon Samuel D. Gross performing an operation on a young man’s femur. There’s an abundance of blood, some of it on Gross’s hand as he pauses to lecture in a theater filled with surgical students. The figures are dressed in formal black, the skylight dramatically picking out pockets of radiance.

Based on relentless studies from life and measuring 8×6.5 feet, the painting is heroic in scale, appropriate for an apotheosis of medical science, the victory of intelligence—symbolized by the intense illumination on Gross’s head—over disease. For all its somberness, it’s an inherently optimistic image.

Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia bought The Gross Clinic for the meager sum of $200. It stayed with the university until 2006, when news of a pending sale that would have taken it out of Pennsylvania was made public. That sale was blocked when the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art joined to purchase the painting and keep it in Philadelphia, at a cost of $68 million.

So your painting wasn’t recognized this year. Be patient. There’s no telling what price it will bring in 130 years.

Visit the website of contributing editor Jerry N. Weiss at www.jerrynweiss.com.

Master Class is a regular column in The Artist’s Magazine. Subscribe today and don’t miss an issue!

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