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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.

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