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Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic)
Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875
Thomas Eakins, American
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The Conservation Project

by Mark Tucker
Vice Chairman of Conservation, Senior Conservator of Paintings, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic was moved to the paintings conservation studio at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in July of 2009, and has since been undergoing technical examination and documentation in preparation for conservation treatment.

Two publications (cited in the suggestions for further reading) offer more detailed background information and images bearing directly on the discussion of the condition and conservation of the painting summarized on these web pages. The information presented on this website is offered to shed light on fundamental questions that initiated the present conversations about the treatment of The Gross Clinic: What did the painting look like when first painted? How has it changed since then? How do the changes affect our ability to understand Eakins's art? What can we do to reconcile the painting’s present appearance with its original appearance?

In 2008, an initial examination of The Gross Clinic and discussions between conservation, curatorial, and executive staffs of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art identified compelling reasons for a conservation treatment to clean and restore the painting. One major concern is its long-term preservation (specifically, the need to remove an aged varnish that is likely to become much more difficult to remove with time). The other most important reason for treatment is that the painting’s appearance in its present state does not faithfully convey the artist’s full achievement. Changes in its appearance over time have been known for decades, even before its last major conservation treatment in 1961. More recently, however, there have been important advances in the knowledge of the way Eakins’s paintings originally looked. The upcoming conservation treatment will draw upon this new information to restore some important elements of The Gross Clinic’s appearance that have been lost to viewers for about eighty-five years.

A painting at the moment it is finished may be the fullest expression and embodiment of the artist’s wishes and abilities, but that moment passes. A painting is a bearer of visual sensations and multiple dimensions of meaning, but first of all, it is a material object. As such, it starts on a path of inevitable changes with time. Because a painting is understood and appreciated largely by its appearance, any change in its visual aspect also diminishes in some degree its representation of the ideas that drove its creation, characterized it as a product of specific artistic concerns, and connected it to its original audience. Whether the changes are great or small, or happen quickly or slowly, depends on a number of factors. Among these are the stability of the materials used in the painting, and the artist’s knowledge and skill in selecting and combining them. Circumstances of its physical environment, such as light, temperature, humidity, and pollution, also can effect changes in a painting’s original appearance. Damages due to pests, accidents, neglect, or vandalism figure in as well. On the other hand, in some cases, efforts to preserve, repair, clean, or restore a painting can be a significant cause of alterations. Largely it is this last factor—the effect of interventions by individuals other than the artist—that is responsible for the changes that are most apparent in many Eakins paintings, including The Gross Clinic.

The first and most conspicuous alterations to the painting took place in the early years of the twentieth century, when Eakins’s paintings first began to be cleaned. Many were sent, unfortunately, to restorers who little understood Eakins’s aesthetics and painting technique. The consequences of such misunderstanding were well known to Susan Eakins (1851-1938), the artist’s widow. For the more than two decades she lived after her husband’s death, she strove to protect his paintings from unsympathetic cleanings and restorations. Her great worry was cleanings that removed layers of original paint in a mistaken effort to brighten Eakins’s intentionally dark-toned and subtly modulated paintings. Such cleanings, in their attempts to raise contrasts and expose lighter tones and brighter colors that Eakins had used in his lower paint layers, disrupted the painstakingly calibrated final balance of tones that Susan Eakins knew to be an essential and masterful accomplishment of her husband's art.

In the 1920’s, despite Susan Eakins’s efforts, The Gross Clinic, like so many other paintings that were not in her direct care, was sent to a restorer without her knowledge. The alterations caused by that and other treatments have been the focus of the present study of the painting, but the realization that the painting had been worked on and changed by restorers is not new. Many of the difficulties created by early restorers’ work were confronted in a major conservation treatment undertaken at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the summer of 1961. Fortunately, in that treatment the painting at last had the benefit of a knowledgeable, trained conservator, with a specific interest in the artist. That conservator, the late Theodor Siegl, was committed to high professional standards of examination and documentation. His clearly expressed aim for the treatment was saving The Gross Clinic from structural deterioration while strictly avoiding any further harm to the canvas or paint.

Next: The 1961 Treatment