Twenty-five years ago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art held an exhibition of the paintings of Thomas Eakins. In his review, the New York Times critic pointed out that Eakins might be America’s greatest painter ever, with his medical panoramas The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic especially notable for excellence. Other experts have been equally enthusiastic, calling The Gross Clinic “the great American masterpiece.”
There’s no need for “debate” about who might be the greatest—Eakins certainly ranks among them. In particular, he’s a Philadelphian, and the subjects of some of his best works are the region’s scenes and people. So when it seemed, in November, that The Gross Clinic, which was owned by Thomas Jefferson University, might be sold to the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the proposed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, Philadelphia’s leaders were challenged with raising $68 million in only 45 days to keep the painting in Philadelphia, where it has always been.
Shortly before the deadline in December, Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street announced the campaign’s success: The city’s philanthropic community had united with a nationwide grassroots effort to enable two local cultural institutions—the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art—to jointly purchase the painting; both institutions will exhibit it publicly.
The Annenberg Foundation is donating $10 million to the effort. H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest, Joseph Neubauer and the Pew Trusts pledged $3 million each. In addition, the drive to secure the painting resulted, to date, in more than 3,000 donations from all over the country. Wachovia Bank agreed to provide the balance of the financing as fundraising continues.
The Gross Clinic is a dramatic 8-by-6.5-foot, oil-on-canvas painting of Samuel D. Gross, M.D., the first chair of surgery at Thomas Jefferson University’s Medical College; witnessed by his students, he is performing bone surgery on a boy. Thomas Eakins, a Philadelphia native, for many years an instructor and a director of the Pennsylvania Academy, painted the portrait in 1875 after studying anatomy under Gross. Alumni of Jefferson Medical School bought the painting in 1878 for $200 and donated it to the institution.
Echoing comments by the donors and other local leaders, The Philadelphia Inquirer praised the “community’s can-do spirit” and noted the precedent it might serve for other important causes: “The Gross Clinic effort shows how the Philadelphia region can rally around a goal. Let’s build on that.”
Generous praise also came from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. “It would have been nice” to have the painting in Arkansas, an editorial stated, but it belongs where it is— partly because it is “of Philadelphia by a Philadelphian” and partly because the city, in matching the offer, proved that it “has a sense of place” which merits such a treasure. “The Gross Clinic went from forgotten masterpiece, or at least one taken for granted, to a symbol of Philadelphia’s renewed cultural spirit and civic gumption,” the editors said. “Yo, Philly! More power to ya!”