The Plan for Restoring the PaintingThe Gross Clinic in 2009
Thanks to the conservation treatment of 1961, the painting has remained structurally sound. The lining remains strong and the paint securely attached to the canvas, so there is no need for further structural work at this time. Some things, however, that have changed since 1961, present both need and opportunity. A need for conservation attention now arises from concern over the stability of the varnish that was applied to The Gross Clinic in 1961. That varnish, a particular synthetic resin often favored in the middle years of the twentieth century as a more stable and less yellowing alternative to traditional picture varnishes, has since been determined to be susceptible to a marked loss of solubility as it ages. After a point, removing it from a painting takes far more effort, and solvents more likely to affect the artist’s paint. Recent cleaning tests on The Gross Clinic have shown that after nearly five decades of aging, the varnish is still safely soluble; nevertheless, its removal and replacement with a more stable varnish cannot be delayed indefinitely. As mentioned earlier, under “The Project,” the look of a painting—the impression it makes on the viewer and its capacity to communicate ideas visually—becomes, with the passage of time, the sum of everything the artist put into it as well as everything beyond the artist’s control that happens to it subsequently. The determination of steps that might be taken in cleaning and restoration toward recovery and clarification of original appearance depends on focused art historical and technical study, to establish and document what changes have occurred and the degree to which they weaken or distort aspects of appearance known to be important to the artist. Our study to this point has identified several unsatisfactory aspects of The Gross Clinic’s present appearance, some conspicuous (such as the changes to the operating theater tunnel), others less so. The cleaning presents an opportunity to address those problems, some of which were not recognized in 1961, and others not dealt with then as we would now in light of present analysis and standards.
The removal of the 1961 varnish and retouching in the cleaning will reveal the actual state of The Gross Clinic, that is, the condition of Eakins’s paint with all the alterations and incidental damages incurred over 134 years exposed. At that stage of the treatment, the visual gap separating the painting’s present appearance from the way it looked originally will be widest; however, what survives of Eakins’s own work will also be clearest. The question of what should be done, ethically, philosophically, and practically, to reconcile the changed appearance of a painting with its original state is the defining challenge at the core of every restoration.
Staff members from the Pennsylvania Academy ot the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art discuss The Gross Clinic in the Museum's new conservation studio.