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Originally published Friday, May 14, 2010 at 3:00 PM

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'Gross Clinic' painting undergoes its own public surgery

Thomas Eakins' masterpiece, "The Gross Clinic (1875), is undergoing the first effort in half a century to study, clean, repair, and restore the iconic work. This complex story of healing will be the subject of the exhibition "An Eakins Masterpiece Restored: Seeing" The Gross Clinic Anew," scheduled to open at the Art Museum on July 24, 2010 for a run through Jan. 9, 2011.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Tucked away on the third floor of the art deco Perelman Building, in a corner nook hidden by a towering black screen, hangs what is widely considered the greatest American painting of the 19th century.

Thomas Eakins' masterpiece, "The Gross Clinic (1875), is resting comfortably in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's conservation laboratory. The 8-by-6-foot canvas has a semiprivate room these days, sharing space only with a small Rembrandt head of Christ.

Seeing the painting here is almost like barging unannounced into a convalescent's room. Can this frail piece of art be the great work that inspired a dramatic and costly public effort in 2006 to buy it and keep it here, in the city of its birth?

"The Gross Clinic" hangs without frame. In the upper right is a blotch of gray — not the shadowy head and leg of memory — and in the center an eerie reddish-brown field with two figures melting away into nothingness.

But what appear to be signs of distress and ghostly infirmity are in fact stages of the first effort in half a century to study, clean, repair, and restore the iconic work.

This complex story of healing will be the subject of the exhibition "An Eakins Masterpiece Restored: Seeing" The Gross Clinic Anew," scheduled to open at the Art Museum on July 24 for a run through Jan. 9.

The show will explore the history of the painting as a work of art and as an object subject to the shifting desires and tastes of its initial and longtime owner — Jefferson Medical College, now Thomas Jefferson University — and the well-meaning but nearly disastrous efforts of early conservators and restorers.

Make no mistake: "The Gross Clinic" has suffered from good intentions.

Like doctors who sought to cure yellow fever by draining away the blood of their patients, conservators and restorers of the past aimed to clean this somber canvas, brighten it, strengthen it — often by draining away its paint.

They dissolved figures, erased final finishes, exposed lower paint layers, and weakened the composition.

Despite all this, the tremendous energy of the composition — monumental Samuel Gross, preeminent Jefferson surgeon, scalpel in bloody hand, poised above a patient's open incision as scores of students look on — has withstood misguided improvement efforts.

How to return this painting to something akin to what Eakins intended has been the subject of intense discussion among curators and conservators at the Art Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, its institutional owners, for almost two years. Nearly four years ago, they led a massive public effort to raise $68 million to buy the work when Jefferson announced its sale to an Arkansas museum.

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"I first worked on the picture, a surface cleaning and a revarnishing, in 1982. That was for the Eakins retrospective here at the museum," Mark S. Tucker, the museum's vice chairman of conservation and senior paintings conservator, said as he gazed up at the canvas.

Members of the restoration team, including academy curator Anna O. Marley and conservator Aella Diamantopoulos, and the museum's senior curator of American art, Kathleen A. Foster, looked on, along with museum director Timothy Rub and academy president David R. Brigham.

"As a really young conservator I got to work on it," Tucker continued, speaking to his attentive audience. "And in intervening years, I'd go down to Jefferson whenever they needed it examined for a loan or something like that. So I stayed in touch with it.

"When our own Eakins show was scheduled here in 2001 we were doing a lot of research on Eakins generally, so I was down there looking at it a lot, and even at that point I realized that some things in the picture had changed in a fundamental way, that the way it looked when it came off of Eakins' easel was not the way it looks now."

With extensive archival research and a close examination of early images of the painting, including a precise ink wash executed by Eakins shortly after he completed the canvas, the nature of the changes became clear.

In addition, Tucker and his colleagues subjected the canvas to extensive examination using a variety of technologies. X-rays, for instance, revealed that Eakins had changed his composition "on the fly," as Foster put it, during the course of laying on the paint.

The artist, at first, apparently conceived Gross working completely within the operating arena, with the viewer separated from the action by a low wooden amphitheater wall along the bottom of the picture. But the finished work contains no wall; instead, the viewer is thrust into the center of the drama.

X-ray photography, which had never been performed on the painting, revealed the shadow wall beneath the finished surface. (Eakins used the wall concept in his later monumental medical painting, "The Agnew Clinic.")

Other subtle changes are also apparent in the ghostly X-ray: The position of a clerk documenting the operation is moved up a few inches, and limbs are moved slightly to open up the area beneath the operating table.

"All the changes that he made were for the good," Foster said.

Among the items that the Art Museum will display in its exhibition are the full-size X-ray image of the painting, studies Eakins executed in preparation for the canvas, a rendering of his ink wash, early photographs, the portrait of physician Benjamin Rand that Jefferson sold to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas not long after "The Gross Clinic was retained in Philadelphia, and Eakins' "The Agnew Clinic," owned by the University of Pennsylvania and on long-term loan to the museum.

The show will be the first to exhibit "Agnew" and "Gross" together, according to museum officials. The exhibition will also feature museum painting conservator Suzanne Penn's documentary film exploring Eakins' painting technique and the conservation process.

The most significant damage to the painting surface occurred about 85 years ago.

In the 1920s, possibly to brighten the painting in anticipation of Jefferson's 1924 centennial celebration, a preservationist began "to clean" the surface.

"You see that masklike spot?" asked Foster, the curator, gesturing toward the blotch of gray in the upper right corner.

"That's just been over-cleaned by somebody who went in and started to clean it and then went, 'Whoa-oh!' and backed away. That corner's been the worst hurt by having the painting cleaned. So that's why it looks so funny now. We've taken off all of the overpainting of the 20th century that was mitigating those bare patches. ...

"When the damage happened, somebody went in later and said, 'Whoops!' and tried to put it back," Foster continued. "But Mark has then taken off all of those overpaints from the 20th century."

While the earlier cleaning erased figures from the upper right, equal damage was done to a large area directly over Gross' left shoulder, where two men stand at the tunnel entrance to the operating amphitheater.

The background tunnel color is a very reddish brown, but that is not what Eakins painted. Tucker knows this from studying Eakins' ink wash, which was designed to indicate light and dark values.

The wash shows a dark background with two lighter figures at the entrance to the tunnel. But what a viewer sees now is the opposite: a lighter tunnel with two darker figures dissolving into it.

"Now, the change that takes place in the tunnel, we all agree, changes the nature of the picture in a pretty marked way," Tucker said. "In the tunnel, that's underpainting that you're seeing now. That happened because of cleaning, and that reddish (color), that's a foundation layer. Eakins painted in layers."

One might think these issues — in addition to the normal wear and tear any object suffers over time — would prove formidable. But Tucker said work done on "The Gross Clinic" at the museum in 1961 had saved the painting and made the current preservation a bit easier.

In the 1940s, the canvas was glued to two pieces of plywood in an effort to strengthen the linen. Less than two decades later, the plywood had started to warp.

"That was a rescue mission," Tucker said of 1961. "They were saving the painting from tearing itself in half. These were the nail heads that were starting to work forward into the canvas and show as bumps on the front.

"Yeah. It was just hair-raising."

The museum's respected conservator at the time, Theodor Siegl, used a power plane (and the talents of a young painter, Louis Sloan) to remove the plywood down to the last, thin ply. The rest of the wood and the tenacious glue were painstakingly removed by hand.

Siegl and his colleagues also restored, to some extent, the faces in the upper right of the canvas.

That effort nearly 50 years ago not only saved the painting from disaster, but it also has allowed Tucker and his team to easily remove all restoration work; apply a translucent, removable varnish; and ponder what to do next.

Most important, there is an agreement on the need to "trust the picture," moving forward on restoration using Eakins' detailed wash image, an early photograph, and almost microscopic flecks of original paint left on the canvas to build up the images in the upper right, mitigate the impact of the reddish brown underpaint at the tunnel entrance, and return detail to "cleaned" figures.

Applying paint dot by microscopic dot, they will move slowly across the surface in an effort to bring back something akin to what left Eakins' Mount Vernon Street studio in 1875.

"It's only by patching in at a microscopic level every little loss that we see here and working with the documentation that the picture starts to come together again," Tucker said.

"He's not covering up any of Eakins' paint. He's just filling the damages," interjected Foster.

"Restoration is provisional. It reflects taste," Tucker said. "It used to be denied that it reflected taste, but we admit the bias. So in this restoration we are going to take the tunnel back tonally to where it is here (in the 1875-76 Eakins wash drawing). Now the rules of conservation say you can't change the known character of the original. Well, we're not doing that. We're changing a damaged area. This is not original paint surface. This is an underpainting. ...

"We all agree that we'll try it and if it's thumbs up from everybody, we've done it. And if it's not, we can try something else, or it can stay that way for a number of years and be taken off. It can be treated locally at some future point."

Said Foster: "It's completely reversible. You can get back to this (unrestored state) at any time."

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