The Gross Clinic Study of a Painting

Artist: Thomas Eakins

Title: The Gross Clinic, 1875

Medium: Oil on Canvas

Size: 96 x 78 in.

I have been reading "The Revenge of Thomas Eakins" by Sidney Kirkpatrick and have been fascinated to read about the amount of forethought and preparation that went into this particular painting.

The "Gross Clinic' was intended as a portrait of the famous Philadelphia surgeon Dr.Gross, portraying him performing osteomyelitis surgery. Osteomyelitis is a bone infection, which often left its victims crippled as teens. It used to be a common practice to have family members present during surgery, especially if the surgery was done as a charitable deed to avoid any possible malpractice suits. Often assistance and medical students would also be present during surgery to learn from the attending surgeon. This meant for Eakins that he had not only a surgeon and his patient, but a variety of other characters within the operating room. If you consider angles and view points, there are a multitude of ways to depict such a scene and what makes this painting a masterpiece of it's time is how Eakins went about arranging his casts of characters for optimum effect.

The moment Eakins ultimately depicted was just after Dr. Gross had already made the incision. An assistant surgeon probes the wound, two other assistance hold the incision open with metal retractors, and a third assistant grips the patient's leg. At the end of the operating table an anesthesiologist holds a mass of chloroform-soaked gauze over the patient's face.
The motion picture nature of the drama could thus be captured in a single moment:Having completed his incision, Dr. Gross pauses while his assistant, Dr. James Barton, probes for a piece of diseased bone. The noble browed professor, knife held in his crimson-soaked fingers, turns to the assembled students in the surrounding gallery to comment on some aspect of the operation. Eakins himself is seen sketching from his seat at the far right in the first row of observers. To Gross's right side is the patient's mother, clothed in a full length black dress and bonnet, her head averted from the bloody scene taking place in front of her, raising her clenched hands in fright.
The drama of the painting's construction is generated by its many contrasts: the noble, magisterial calm of Dr. Gross, the agony and horror experienced by the patient's mother, the obvious helplessness and vulnerability of the patient, and the hushed attention paid by the students.
Eakins sets darkness against light, science against disease, and ignorance against knowledge. ... The less obvious details provide additional fidelity to a perception of the actual situation. A tray of operating room instruments and gauze appears in front of Dr. Gross. Above the patient's mother, at a brightly lit lectern in the first row of the amphitheater, Dr. Franklin West records the clinical proceedings for the benefit of future medical students and researchers. In the middle distance, watching from inside the doorway to the amphitheater, behind the operating table, is Hughey O'Donnell, the college orderly, and in a more intense pose, Dr. Gross's son, himself a surgeon. For twenty-one smaller portraits in the painting, those of Dr. Gross's audience, Eakins also depicted real people.
Eakins did not, however, conceptualize the painting solely as a work of uncompromising realism. To miss this point would be to miss the painting's most subtle and compelling innovation. ... Eakins conceived Dr. Gross's portrait as making heavy visual and intellectual demands on the viewer. Eakins constructed the portrait in such a way that it adroitly yet realistically obscures certain parts of the events, and thereby draws the viewer into the scene taking place.
The patient for example(presumed to be male), is almost totally hidden, his face is covered by the anesthetist's cloth. All that is clearly visible of him is his left buttock and thigh and sock-covered feet. Also hidden is an assistant seated behind Dr. Gross: only part of his knee and his hand holding a retractor in the incision appear. Eakins-before even putting brush to canvas-knew that it would take the viewer minutes, if not longer, of studying the painting to understand what was transpiring.
These enigmatic elements were not intended to confuse; instead, they make it more likely that the viewer will study every detail. As anyone who has spent time with the completed painting can well attest, Eakins accomplished what he had set out to do. To be appreciated, the painting requires both the viewer's participation and imagination. Once the viewer is involved, the bloody detail sweeps over the viewing experience in ways that few painting ever achieve.

It is known that Dr. Gross got so tired of posing for his portrait that Eakins had to photographed him both in his studio and in the operating hall. Eakins did make several oil studies of the other people in the painting. It is interesting to note here that with so many people in the painting, Dr. Gross always remains the main character and focal point of the painting.

As conservators have revealed, he suffused both lights and darks with a warm, unifying layer of red underpainting that brings the various elements into harmony. The red in the doorway pulls the distance closer. He used direct touches of other colors to report details of the surgical setting. The instruments in the left foreground are lined with bright green and blue. Pinks, blues, and purples describe the blood-soaked dressings at the very left of the table. On the right is gauze stained with reds and pinks of fresh blood. Underneath the end of the operating table, drops of red still gleam in a box of sand or sawdust positioned to catch the blood from the operation. Even in the more localized color, it is the red that dominates and draws the viewer across the painting and into the center triangle where Dr Gross stands over the patient. In the blood-defined scalpel, Eakins brought together his most intense color and his sharpest focus.
Eakins wielded his brush with a hand as steady as the one of Dr. Gross used to guide his scalpel. Every detail in the picture contributes to its overall dramatic value. Each person depicted shows elements of character. Though the painting was decidedly meant to be a scientific study, Eakins sought and captured the humanity of the event. He did not shrink from describing the unpleasant aspects of life. Rather he portrayed the disease and the pain truthfully. Out of the painting's truth of characterization, its strength and balance of design, comes its extraordinary power.

I welcome discussions about Eakin's approach and effectiveness.

The Revenge of Thomas Eakins
By Sidney D. Kirkpatrick
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