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Gross Clinic

Collection: 
The Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

Art critic William Clark, Jr. was very enthusiastic about Eakins’s The Gross Clinic when he saw it at the Hazeltine Gallery (Philadelphia) in April 1876:

“To say that this figure is a most admirable of the distinguished surgeon would do it scant justice; we know of nothing in the line of portraiture that has ever been attempted in this city, or indeed in this country, that in any way approaches it. The members of the clinical staff who are grouped around the patient, the students and other lookers-on, are all portraits, and very striking ones, although from the peculiar treatment adopted they do not command the eye of the spectator as does that of the chief personage. The work, however, is something more than a collection of fine portraits; it is intensely dramatic, and is such a vivid representation of such a scene as must frequently be witnessed in the amphitheatre of a medical school, as to be fairly open to the objection of being decidedly unpleasant to those who are not accustomed to such things….Leaving out of consideration the subject, which will make this fine performance anything but pleasing to many people, the command of all the resources of a thoroughly trained artist, and the absolute knowledge of principles which lie at the base of all correct and profitable artistic practice, demand for it the cordial admiration of all lovers of art, and of all who desire to see the standard of American art raised above its present level of respectable mediocrity. This portrait of Dr. Gross is a great work – we know of nothing greater that has ever been executed in America.”

William Clark, Jr. review in the Daily Evening Telegraph (28 April 1876); cited in Gordon Hendricks, “Thomas Eakins’s Gross Clinic,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 51, no. 1 (March 1969): 61.


Sarah Burns suggests that Eakins projected his anxiety about mental and physical health in The Gross Clinic :

“In this painting, Eakins deposited his own acute anxieties about bodily disintegration and loss of control. A clue lies in the signature, which he inscribed along with the date, 1875, in block capitals on the end of the operating table…Clearly, the radically foreshortened body on the table is not that of Eakins; we know he is watching from the sidelines. But the signature subtly insinuates some sort of uneasy identification or dialogue with that unconscious body, so utterly deprived of agency and will. That body in turn complements the woman in black who (like a patient in the grip of manic excitement or frenzy) in every line of her body expresses surrender to overwhelming emotion. Together, those two figures conjure up a threatening spectacle of physical debility and emotional abandon that must at all costs be reined in and brought to order. In this context we might see Gross as the artist’s alter ego, a bastion of maleness standing firm and tall against the mental and bodily chaos all around him. By no accident does Eakins keep his eyes glued on the surgeon, as if his own life and integrity depend on the patriarchal doctor’s power.”

Sarah Burns, “Ordering the Artist’s Body: Thomas Eakins’s Acts of Self-Portrayal,” American Art, vol. 19, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 92.


Jennifer Doyle comments on issues of gender relating to the presence of the woman and of the ungendered patient:

“…the reining-in of affect in the name of realism (the work The Gross Clinic describes) requires the presence of a woman: the heroic performance of masculine power is acted out around and against the backdrop of her abjection. That she, of the figures on the canvas, most explicitly and aggressively displays her gender position, and that the naked body on the table has no discernible gender whatsoever, suggests, in addition, that sexual difference, as it is produced within this setting, does not, as Walt Whitman wrote, ‘stand alone.’ The trimmings (character, personality, gesture, costume, position) are everything.

The painting’s failure to gender the patient allows us to place the management of the production of sexual difference at the core of not only the medical discourses the painting celebrates but also the sociology of art that it allegorizes. …[It] speaks to the sodomitical possibilities inscribed within the scene of producing and consuming art, as activities that allowed men and women a physical intimacy defined by something other than the imperative to reproduce, as a scene in which the pleasures of representing sex outstrip the epistemological drive to figure sex out.”

Jennifer Doyle, “Sex, Scandal, and Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic,” Representations, no. 68 (Autumn 1999): 29.


Michael Fried considers the relationship of Eakins’s Gross Clinic to writing and realism:

“…[I]t is the Gross Clinic that remains the most dramatic and memorable expression of the conflict between the systems of writing/drawing and of painting in all of Eakins’s art. [T]he dialectic of fascination and repulsion (and vice versa), of wanting to look but finding it painful to look and yet not being able to look away, that I have associated both with the violent foreshortening of the patient’s body and with the dual foci of the operation and Gross’s bloody hand and have correlated with the shock tactics of various moments in the realist tradition that can also be understood as an extreme expression – a sort of literalization in the realm of feeling – of the divided nature of the viewing function posited by the other pictures by Eakins we have considered. The figures of the eclipsed assistant and the patient’s mother covering her eyes also takes their places in an intensely conflictual field keyed to fundamentally different modes of articulating surfaces, the first figure as a sign of ultimate unreadability and hence of the ‘graphic,’ the second as an (overdetermined) image of the excruciation between incompatible acts of seeing… Then too the Gross Clinic’s hidden connection, by way of its initial oil sketch, to an inverted study of rowers and by extension to the rowing pictures as a group and beyond that to a whole poetics of reflection can be read as at once acknowledging and disavowing a basic involvement with the writing/drawing complex. By the same token, the progressive elevation of the amphitheater audience appears to belong to the upright ‘space’ of painting at the same time that the downward gazes of that audience, as well as of the chief assistant surgeon and the anesthesiologist, bear an obvious relation to the horizontal ‘space’ of writing/drawing. Conversely, the multiplication of motifs of writing and writinglike activity, one of which involves a portrait of Eakins, seems unequivocal and yet…the erect figure of Gross resembles nothing so much as that of a painter holding a paintbrush and stepping back or turning momentarily away from a canvas on which he has been working. But for Eakins the realist painter to have represented himself allegorically through the personage of a master surgeon was to interpret his own enterprise not only as doing nature’s work and causing necessary pain but also, inescapably, as divided or excruciated between competing systems of representation.”
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Michael Fried, Realism, Writing, and Disfiguration in Thomas Eakins’s Gross Clinic, with a Postscript on Stephen Crane’s Upturned Faces, Representations, no. 9 (Winter 1985): 87-8.

Web Resources

smarthistory: Eakins, Gross Clinic

About the Artist

Born: Philadelphia, PA, 25 July 1844
Died: Philadelphia, PA, 25 June 1916
Nationality: American