The Gross Clinic

Eakins’s masterpiece, the Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic),was jointly purchased by PAFA and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2007. More than 3,400 donors participated in a massive local and national appeal to keep the painting in Philadelphia.

In March of 1875 the organizers of the art section of the Centennial Exhibition called for Philadelphia artists to produce works that would “do honor to the country and to the occasion.” Thomas Eakins, with only five years experience as a professional artist, eagerly accepted the challenge. He chose to paint a portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (1805-1884), one of the most respected surgeons in America. Eakins had met Dr. Gross while studying human anatomy at Jefferson Medical College.

Eakins created a monumental canvas with a complex and dramatic subject that reflects his fascination with the human body, and personifies his respect for this seminal figure in American medicine. The painting is dramatic and shocking, for its monumental scale, the backside view of the patient’s buttocks, the open incision dripping blood, and the glistening red scalpel in Dr. Gross’s right hand. The hand and the brilliantly painted, almost haloed head of Dr. Gross create a dynamic diagonal along which the viewer’s eye is inevitably drawn. With The Gross Clinic, Thomas Eakins, then thirty-one years old, suddenly emerged into his artistic maturity with a work of stylistic and technical brilliance. This compelling and dramatic painting is rightly considered his masterpiece, and one of the greatest American paintings ever created.

The Gross Clinic was first exhibited in Philadelphia in the spring of 1876, at the Haseltine Galleries immediately following its rejection by the art jury of the Centennial Exhibition. Some sympathetic art critics did praise it at that time, but non-art commentators were either puzzled or horrified. The painting was then invited, very likely at Dr. Gross’s suggestion, into the Army Medical Pavilion of the Centennial Exhibition, where it was hung, although hidden away in a corner. In early 1878 the canvas was purchased by Jefferson Medical College for two hundred dollars.