The Gross Clinic, 1875

Sharon Lorenzo’s fourth profile of a single work of art.

In September of 2004, the new President of Thomas Jefferson University started his job with a fiscal review of the school and found that this one picture, The Gross Clinic, was costing the school $50,000 per year for its insurance premium with about 500 visitors each year seeing the work in their main building. Having been provost at the University of Pennsylvania, Robert Barchi knew the historical significance of this work which had been painted by Thomas Eakins in Philadelphia for the famous 1876 Centennial Fair, highlighting one of the school’s first graduates, Dr. Samuel Gross. With a self-portrait of the artist himself in the right rear, the painting created a major stir as the surgery was a rather bloody affair with the mother of the patient covering her face to the left. Osteomyelitis of the femur was the diagnosis, and Dr. Gross was captured by Thomas Eakins performing this surgery while the patient was under anesthesia. The Centennial committee rejected the work for their show, but Jefferson Hospital stepped in and paid $200 for the work which measures eight by six and a half feet.

Once the trustees of Jefferson in 2004 voted to approve the sale of the art work, lawyers from a Philadelphia firm reached out to Christie’s president, Marc Porter, who set a price for the work at $68 million dollars based on recent sales in the art market. Porter then contacted Alice Walton who was building a collection of American art for her new museum in Crystal Bridges, Arkansas, knowing that she had been the highest bidder in a recent closed bid sale of another American painting, Kindred Spirits, by Asher Durand when it came up for sale from the New York Public Library. Lawyers for Jefferson did contact both the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts once they had a firm offer from Walton, giving the local institutions 45 days to match her price at $68,000,000.

When the local and national media heard the story, four simultaneous processes went into effect as both the PMA and PAFA began to muster all resources to save the painting for Philadelphia. First, they made solicitations from major donors, then began a national grassroots campaign for same. With a bridge loan from Wachovia bank, both museums identified lesser known works by Eakins in their collections and began to sell these to raise additional funds. Finally, on December 21, 2006, Philadelphia Mayor John Street declared in a public address that this most important piece of local cultural heritage was going to stay in town with a joint ownership agreement between the two museums, allowing the picture to commute the short distance of 1.2 miles between the two buildings on Benjamin Franklin Parkway.[1]

Michael Kimmelman, art critic for The New York Times, said that this picture is “hands down the finest work of American art in the 19th century .”[2] While art museums are censored today for selling major works of art, hospitals and libraries share the luxury of being able to do this without public dispute. This Philadelphia story is one of great success, as now local art lovers can see this work which has been cleaned and restored in either the Philadelphia Museum of Art or the Pennsylvania Academy, depending on its travel schedule which is available on the website of both institutions.

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Sharon Lorenzo – January, 2017

 

[1] The Philadelphia Clinic: Selling and Buying A Civic Treasure in A Booming Art Market. Jack Sheehan, University of Pennsylvania Law School, 2014.

[2] Michael Kimmelman, New York Times, June 21, 2002.