When the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts recently purchased The Gross Clinic (1875), Thomas Eakins’s masterpiece, they had less than half the $68 million price in hand. There was apprehension over how the financially strapped institutions would raise the rest—with good reason, it now turns out. The Academy has just sold another work of Eakins, The Cello Player (1896), to a private purchaser for an undisclosed sum to help raise the rest of the purchase price. It is a striking portrait of Rudolph Henning, the cellist who introduced Dvořák to American audiences. The Academy bought the painting from Eakins in 1897, one of the few he sold in his lifetime.
The sale of items from a museum collection is called “deaccessioning,” an unattractive word for an unattractive act. Museum ethics are quite strict about the process: one may sell objects to enhance a collection—trading up, as it were—but never to cover operating expenses or to pay for repairs. Such actions are looked on with horror in the art world, as the equivalent of burning furniture to heat the house for a few days.
From this perspective, the swap is relatively unobjectionable. Both paintings show Eakins at his best, observing his most characteristic subject, a titanic figure in a moment of intense concentration and action. And both works are in a sense autobiographical, showing the empathy Eakins reserved for those he regarded as fellow artists. Of the two paintings, however, The Gross Clinic is by far the finer, matching in originality and intensity of expression what Huckleberry Finn achieved in literature or Boston’s Trinity Church in architecture. One can sympathize with the Academy for making this difficult decision.
On the other hand, one need not endorse it. Museums that think boldly attract bold donors; and museums that think cautiously do not. When the original purchase was announced it seemed like a brilliant but risky chess gambit; in the light of this sale, it looks considerably less spectacular, like the sacrifice of a rook for a queen. If more works are sacrificed in the coming months, however, this daring gambit might begin to look like an ill-considered blunder.