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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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Much of the present understanding of the condition of The Gross Clinic and the basis for the conservation treatment being formulated comes out of research done at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, published in the essay, “The Pursuit of True Tones,” in the catalogue of the 2001-02 Eakins retrospective exhibition. The essay presents findings of a study of frequently encountered alterations—mostly due to cleanings—that have occurred in Eakins’s paint surfaces. It also considers the potential interference of those changes with viewers’ appreciation of Eakins’s artistic inclinations, ideas, and abilities.

At the heart of the investigation was Eakins’s engagement with color, tone, and refinement of effect, the aspects of many of his paintings, including The Gross Clinic, most affected by cleanings. Our research set technical observations from close comparative examinations of over 150 Eakins paintings against his own writing on color and tone, and in the context of painting theory and technique as taught in art academies of the time, and period art criticism and scientific thought about perception. As the study proceeded, it became ever more apparent that Eakins held the command of color and tone to be one of the great challenges facing an artist, a challenge that had been met by the artists he admired most, and that he understood would be a measure of his own progress and success as a painter.

Eakins, Tone, and Technique

A notebook kept by Eakins as a student and a young artist (the so-called “Spanish notebook,” in Charles Bregler’s Thomas Eakins Collection, housed at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) and some of his letters show that Eakins, like so many academically trained artists of his time, was centrally concerned, at times preoccupied, with the control of the relative levels of light and dark in his paintings. He viewed this control as crucial to the convincing depiction of real objects occupying real spaces, and to overall artistic effect. His concern over this basic challenge of pictorial representation is consistent with the primary importance placed on “true tones” in the teaching at art academies in his day, and with the expectations of art critics and connoisseurs. Eakins’s analysis of the difficulties of tone and color, and his search for techniques to meet the challenges, led him to a method of painting he would utilize throughout his career—painting by layers. Rather than just mixing the final color that would appear in the painting, he preferred to develop and refine his paintings by laying in a strong and solid underpainting, and then, in successive painting sessions, superimposing modifying layers of color—some opaque, some translucent. The final color of a given area could be quite different from the color applied initially. This approach allowed him to adjust the brightness of colors and the lightness or darkness of specific areas, or even whole paintings, as his work progressed, and was critical to achieving his goals of tonal control and refinement.

A recurring feature of Eakins’s technique, then, is the establishment of high key, bright color, and emphatic contrasts of light and dark in the early stages of painting. After that, he would apply additional layers of paint to adjust and refine contrasts, gradations, color, and overall key. As Eakins said, this sequential process was, “the only in my opinion that can give delicacy and strength at the same time.” His pursuit of an ideal balance between strength and delicacy is mirrored in the technique we see in many of his paintings—a direct, bold lay-in of the design, modified in subsequent painting sessions, progressing toward a complementary subtlety. Overall, the result of this process was a lowering of contrasts, color intensity, and key throughout the later and final stages of painting. This intentional progression would, decades later, cause confusion and missteps among some restorers, with the result that Eakins’s commitment to and achievement of tonal refinement is often no longer apparent.

Consequences of Certain Cleanings

For many years, owners and restorers often did not understand the intentional low key of Eakins’s paintings, and felt they would be improved if they looked brighter and higher in contrast. Cleanings motivated by such thinking broke through and removed the final veils of paint Eakins had used to perfect the relationships of tones. The lighter and more colorful foundation layers exposed by overcleaning were never meant to be seen in finished pictures. This is what happened in the The Gross Clinic’s operating theater tunnel; Eakins underpainted it in the red-orange color, adding the dark tone and figures to the painting at a later point. Attempting to lighten this dark passage, a restorer in the 1920’s discovered the color underneath and, for whatever reason, preferring it to Eakins’s deep tone, inappropriately uncovered it.

Such disruption of the painstakingly measured tonal subtlety and balance Eakins pursued with such care throughout his career begins to show in cleanings done as early as 1917, the year after his death. Some of the damage to originally more finished-looking passages shows that strong cleaning agents and aggressive techniques were necessary to override Eakins’s efforts to construct his paintings so that his toning layers would withstand a properly careful cleaning. Restorers were willing to proceed so aggressively either because Eakins’s final paint layers were not recognized as such, perhaps mistaken instead for just a grimy picture varnish, or because his care with pictorial tone was just not properly appreciated, as it now is, as a vital part of his conception of masterful painting.

See Mark Tucker and Nica Gutman, “The Pursuit of 'True Tones,' " in Thomas Eakins, American Realist, (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2001), pp. 353-365.

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