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The Philadelphia Museum of Art celebrates the return of Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic by making it the centerpiece of a new installation in its galleries of American art. As part of the co-ownership agreement with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the display of Eakins’s masterpiece, which was painted in 1876, rotates between the two institutions every several years. Now back at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, this painting is on view in a new installation with other works of art from the collection that reflect the growing cosmopolitan spirit and ambition displayed by Eakins and his contemporaries during the last few decades of the nineteenth century. One of Eakins’s greatest achievements, The Gross Clinic can be seen together with the artist’s second major painting of a medical subject, The Agnew Clinic of 1889, on loan from the University of Pennsylvania.
This installation is intended to evoke a time when galleries often displayed sculpture, decorative arts, and paintings hung “salon style” from floor to ceiling. In addition to works by Eakins, paintings by Philadelphians William Trost Richards and Thomas Moran are on view, shown alongside works by Philadelphia-trained artists who lived abroad such as Mary Cassatt and Henry O. Tanner. Other cosmopolitan artists such as John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeill Whistler are also included. Cassatt’s On the Balcony, Whistler’s Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks, and Sargent’s Portrait of Frances Sherborne Ridley Watts demonstrate the international spirit of American art in this period.
The reinstallation also presents a number of works that were exhibited at world’s fairs, including those held in Philadelphia in 1876, Chicago in 1893, and Paris in 1900. Prominent among these is the painting voted most popular by viewers at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, Thomas Hovenden’s Breaking Home Ties, which depicts a young man’s farewell to his family as he set out to seek his fortune.
When Philadelphia hosted the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, the fair drew 10 million visitors. Eakins seized this opportunity to submit a new painting, ambitious both in size and subject matter, depicting a surgery led by the renowned Dr. Samuel Gross. The painting’s intense realism famously upset the fine arts judges. Years later, at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Eakins’s two medical paintings were displayed together and he was awarded a medal for these achievements.
In addition to depicting American themes, the works of art in these galleries reflect the international exchange of artistic ideas and their relationship to national ambition. The influence of Chinese and Japanese art is evident in Whistler’s paintings,the Herter Brothers’ elegant wardrobe, Rookwood’s innovative ceramics, and John La Farge’s spectacular stained glass panel, Spring. A Pan-American theme is highlighted by the work of Mexican painter José Maria Velasco, whose panoramic Valley of Oaxaca was also shown at the Chicago fair. Velasco’s painting shares a pride in national landscape with Thomas Moran’s monumental Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. The widespread fascination with themes of exploration and the American West can be seen in both paintings and the decorative arts—as, for example, in a punch bowl, tray, and ladle designed by Joseph Heinrichs that features motifs of arrowheads, antlers, and American Indian figures.
Other superb examples of the decorative arts of this period are prize-winning pieces from the 1876 Centennial, such as a cut glass decanter set by the Dorflinger Glass Company and an ornate cabinet by Giuseppe Ferrari. Represented also is a massive desk by Philadelphia’s most inventive architect of this era, Frank Furness, reminiscent of his design for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which opened in the same year as the Centennial, and Louis Comfort Tiffany’s distinctive favrile glass, much admired at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900.
Kathleen Foster, the Robert L. McNeil, Jr., Senior Curator of American Art, said: “We are delighted to place The Gross Clinic, for the first time, in the midst of the great collection of American paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This renovation of our largest gallery devoted to his collection allows us to suggest the grandeur of the public exhibitions of this era. These international exhibitions gave artists the opportunity to learn from one another, gain a reputation, and attract patrons. A surprising number of objects from our collection were prize-winners in these salons and expositions, and so it is exciting to reconstruct this networkand to illustrate the kind of environment in which The Gross Clinic was initially presented and judged.”
The early exhibition history of each object—in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, Paris, and other cities—is noted on the labels in the gallery, and supplementary interpretive material is available on the Museum’s website, thanks to the support of the Mellon Foundation.
About The Gross Clinic: The Gross Clinic is owned jointly by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, thanks to the successful campaign launched by the two institutions in 2006 to keep the painting in Philadelphia when it was offered for sale by Thomas Jefferson University. The display of this painting alternates between these institutions as part of the exchange agreement.
Tuesday through Sunday: 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m., Wednesdays and Fridays until 8:45 p.m.
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