Shedding Darkness on an Eakins Painting

Written on July 20, 2010 by DeansTalk in Arts & Cultures & Societies

As published in the New York Times

Photographs From the Philadelphia Museum of Art


PHILADELPHIA — The critic Clement Greenberg once described Thomas Eakins's signature brand of darkness as "an ideal chiaroscuro." Eakins was known to knock down even the brightness of a cheerful blue sky with a sober dimming wash.

So it often struck scholars as odd that his greatest symphony of darkness and light — the huge, still unsettling "Gross Clinic" from 1875, showing an operation in a surgical theater, a bloody union of human progress and frailty — always seemed to have a little too much light in it, in all the wrong places. The two figures standing in a corridor behind the godlike surgeon Dr. Samuel D. Gross appeared to be emerging from an orange inferno, with parts of their clothes aflame, drawing the viewer's eye away from the drama at the painting's center. Many of the medical students arrayed in the darkened galleries above were too bright and reddish, as if some were fiddling with flashlights.

"This is the picture that's been in a thousand textbooks," said Kathleen A. Foster, senior curator of American art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, staring despondently last week at an image of the work on a computer screen. "It's the painting everyone knows. Unfortunately it's not the one Eakins painted."

But on the wall next to the computer towered the one he did, the original, out of its frame and glowering once again with all the menace and murk its creator intended. Over the past 10 months, in a high-ceilinged conservation lab, Ms. Foster and Mark Tucker, the museum's chief paintings conservator, have led an ambitious restoration effort to reverse extensive changes made to the work sometime between 1917 and 1925 under the direction of its former owner, Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. The painting, which has not been seen in public since last July, will go back on view Saturday at the museum in the exhibition "An Eakins Masterpiece Restored: Seeing 'The Gross Clinic' Anew," which will continue through Jan. 9.

The show will mark a rebirth in another sense as well. It will be the formal reintroduction of the picture to the public since a dramatic fund-raising effort in 2007 and 2008 that ensured the painting would stay in Philadelphia. The museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts raised the $68 million needed to keep it after Thomas Jefferson University, the medical school's parent, announced plans to sell it for that price in a joint deal to the National Gallery of Art in Washington and to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, being built in Bentonville, Ark., by the Wal-Mart heiress Alice L. Walton.

The Philadelphia Museum and the academy now share it, and the academy will show the restored painting next in an exhibition opening on Jan. 29, "Anatomy/Academy," an exploration of the lively intellectual commerce over the years between Philadelphia artists and scientists.

The restoration of "The Gross Clinic," which has often been described as the most important American painting of the 19th century, tacked in the opposite direction from many conservation efforts, whose goal is to remove years of dirt and dark varnish from old paintings to brighten them and reveal lost details. Many crucial details have returned to "The Gross Clinic" — including the contours of Eakins's face, which he painted into the crowd of medical students. But the heart of the project was to restore the carefully calibrated crepuscular tones that Eakins built up, ones that bothered a succeeding generation in the early 20th century, looking at the work through post-Impressionist, early-Modernist eyes.

"The brief that probably would have been given to a restorer at the time would have been: 'It's really too dark to see some of the figures. Isn't there anything you can do about that?' " said Mr. Tucker, who has studied and performed minor treatments on the painting since the beginning of his conservation career. ("He's been waiting to do this big job on it for 30 years — since he was a child," said Ms. Foster, who has herself spent a career studying Eakins and is one of the nation's foremost experts on his work.)

Conservation projects are always as much philosophical inquiries as they are physical and aesthetic ones: How much should be added to a painting in one's own hand to fix a crack or a chip of the master's work? How much should a painting's history — even its history of misguided prior treatments — be allowed to show through? Where is the line between intuiting a painter's intentions and conjecture that might be colored by the taste of one's own time?

In the case of "The Gross Clinic," which was painted just blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in the city where Eakins lived his entire life, its new restorers had the rare benefit of a paper trail — part of it provided by Eakins himself. Just after completing the work, Eakins made a detailed ink-wash replica of it so that accurate reproductions could be made in print. (The photography of the era was not yet able to translate correct levels of relative light and dark.)

And then, in October 1917, a little over a year after Eakins's death, the Metropolitan Museum of Art photographed the painting, probably then completely untouched by restoration, when it was in New York for a memorial exhibition. But by 1925, when Jefferson Medical College made the first color reproduction of the work, the balance of light and dark had already been destroyed, suffusing the picture with a false "fancy red light," as Eakins's widow, Susan, complained in a 1929 letter to the college.

Mr. Tucker said the Met photograph became his "ur-document."

Ms. Foster added, "Without it we really would have been at sea."

But with it, Mr. Tucker and other conservators — wearing monklike black smocks to reduce reflections from their clothing or skin that might mislead their eyes — began painstakingly to fill in, dot by dot, the blacks, dark grays and cordovan browns that Eakins had put atop the brighter underpainting. The work (which is reversible, in case the next generation sees differently) was so delicate that one conservator fashioned a small disc of black plastic that he placed toward the end of his tiny paintbrush, to block any distorting glare from his fingertips.

As the restoration progressed, not only did previously muddied aspects begin to emerge — an upturned hat on a ledge behind Dr. Gross, emphasizing the distance between him and the background; a medical student's dangling leg — but also elements that strengthen the painting's complex composition and psychological tension, like the expression and eyes of Dr. Gross's son, also a surgeon, who stares from the corridor at his father, echoing his stance and directing viewers' eyes toward the action.

"This is such an important picture for Philadelphia," said Timothy Rub, who took over as director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art last year just as the restoration project was being mapped out. "Its history is so rich and doing this work gives us a chance to tell that story for the first time."

The story is now most likely the one Eakins intended to tell, re-establishing the work as a milestone in his life's exacting mission to accomplish what he once said of his teacher, the French Academic Realist Gérôme, in an 1869 letter: "He has made himself a judge of men and insofar as a painter is a creator he creates new men or brings back those you want to see."


No comments yet.

Leave a Comment


We use both our own and third-party cookies to enhance our services and to offer you the content that most suits your preferences by analysing your browsing habits. Your continued use of the site means that you accept these cookies. You may change your settings and obtain more information here. Accept