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Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) - Pre Conservation
Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875
Thomas Eakins, American
Oil on canvas
8 feet x 6 feet 6 inches (243.8 x 198.1 cm)
Gift of the Alumni Association to Jefferson Medical College in 1878 and purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2007 with the generous support of more than 3,500 donors, 2007

The Visual Record of Changes

The most direct way we can track changes in the appearance of The Gross Clinic over the years is through reproductions and photographs of it made at various points in its history. We have an unusually informative record, due in part to the early and continuing recognition of the painting’s importance. Shown below a recent photograph of The Gross Clinic, at left, are the three most important early images of the painting.

Eakins’s 1875-76 wash drawing after The Gross Clinic
Eakins’s 1875-76 wash drawing after The Gross Clinic
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1923 (23.94)
Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The first image we have of The Gross Clinic is this large, detailed ink wash replica of it made by Eakins soon after he completed the painting. Eakins wished to have black-and-white printed reproductions made by Adolph Braun and Company, a highly regarded European printer. The company needed an accurate image of the painting, but it was impractical to send the painting itself for reference, and photographs of the time could not translate colors into correct relative levels of light and dark. Eakins made this wash drawing as the basis for the reproduction, to show precisely how the colors should read in black and white, and how the lights and darks should relate to one another, so that the print would be a faithful representation of the painting.

1917 Metropolitan Museum of Art photograph
1917 Metropolitan Museum of Art photograph
Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This photograph of the painting was made in October 1917, a little over a year after Eakins’s death, on the occasion of the Thomas Eakins Memorial Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mid-1920’s color reproduction made by Jefferson Medical College
Mid-1920’s color reproduction made by Jefferson Medical College
Courtesy of the Archives & Special Collections, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia.

This reproduction—the first to be made in color—was made for Jefferson Medical College, to be used as the frontispiece in the 1925 yearbook and for general distribution.

Between the 1917 Metropolitan Museum of Art photograph (which looks much like Eakins’s own recording of the relative tones of the painting in his 1875–76 drawing) and the 1925 Jefferson Medical College color reproduction there has been a major change. Just to the right of Dr. Gross and above the surgical group, the large area representing the tunnel opening onto the operating theater has changed from dark to light. The two figures standing in the tunnel (at left, surgical orderly Hughey O’Donnell, at right, Dr. Gross’s son, Samuel W.) were originally lighter than the background. As of 1925, however (and to this day), they are darker—light and dark in the tunnel have become reversed. Further, this area, a sizeable part of the center the painting, imparts a strong reddish tone to the center of the composition. Susan Eakins strongly objected to its effect when she was shown the reproduction. In her 1929 letter of protest to Dean Ross V. Patterson of Jefferson Medical College, she said:
“The photograph [the color reproduction] presents an operation being done by Dr. Gross under a fancy red light which fills the Clinic Room. The oil painting presents an operation being done by Dr. Gross in daylight. I have been in the Clinic Room as it was in Dr. Gross’s time, also am quite certain at this present time, when artificial lights are the fashion, fancy lights would not be permitted on the serious performances of a Clinic.”

The influence of a strong red element on the composition clearly struck her as new and inappropriate. This formerly dark, recessive, and muted secondary passage of the painting now projects a strong false note of ominous, infernal color that competes with the foreground forms and Eakins’s carefully placed touches of stronger color, notably the blood from the surgery. We can see now the marked degree to which the lightened, reddish tone of this area, which has looked this way since at least 1925, upsets the original organization of tones, the focus of the composition, and the recession of pictorial space. What happened to produce this distracting change? The explanation lies in Eakins’s way of visualizing and painting his subjects.

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