The battle over Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic (1875) has ended happily. Last November, Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University sold the painting for $68 million—the highest price ever paid for an American work of art—to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the newly established Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. (Founded by Alice Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress, the Crystal Bridges Museum is being built in Bentonville, Arkansas.) In deference to local sensibilities, however, Jefferson offered the work to Philadelphia institutions if they could match the purchase price within 45 days. In a cliffhanger of the sort not common in the art world, the Philadelphia Art Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, working together, just made the December 26 deadline, having raised about half of the purchase price and borrowing the rest.
Today recognized as the summit of American realism, The Gross Clinic was once viewed as indecent. In 1876 the Centennial Exhibition rejected it as too brutal for public display, and it was relegated to the U.S. Army Hospital exhibition. Its subject is indeed brutal: Samuel D. Gross, Jefferson University’s brilliant surgeon, removes a diseased bone from a young eye and pauses dramatically in mid-action, bloody scalpel in hand. As his assembled students observe with forensic detachment, the boy’s mother cringes beside Gross, in palpable torment. Here is the most forceful depiction imaginable of the intellectual culture of Philadelphia, whose tradition of artistic and scientific empiricism reaches back to its Quaker foundation. For this reason alone, it is deeply satisfying that the painting remain in its native city.
Still, nagging questions remain. One is the involvement of the National Gallery, which might be expected to defend the cause of American art as a whole, and not to act as a predatory corporation, aggrandizing itself at the cost of the cultural patrimony of another city. Another is the increasing tendency of private institutions to sell their cultural assets, declaring them, on the basis of narrowly formulated mission statements, to be “outside the scope of our central mission.” Such was the case two years ago when the New York Public Library sold Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits (1849), the iconic Hudson River School landscape, to the Crystal Bridges Museum. And finally, there is the Philadelphia Art Museum itself, which has eloquently defended the idea that the physical location of a work of art has much to do with its aesthetic force and social significance; it is striking that this is the same museum that has worked so assiduously to pry the collection of the Barnes Foundation from the building and site that have given it its meaning for three quarters of a century.
Such are the lingering qualms, but they should not prevent one from marveling at The Gross Clinic, now on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until March 4.