National Gallery Scores Masterpiece by Eakins

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 11, 2006

The National Gallery of Art has co-purchased one of the 19th century's best-known American paintings, "The Gross Clinic" by Thomas Eakins, for $68 million. The price was a record for a work by the famous and once-scandalous Philadelphia artist.

"This is the most important sale of a 19th-century American painting ever," said Marc Porter, president of Christie's Americas, which facilitated the sale. He said the previous records for Eakins paintings were $5.4 million in 2003 at an auction and $10 million in 1990 in a private sale.

Bought for $200 in 1878 by Thomas Jefferson University, a medical and health sciences school in Philadelphia, the 8-by-7-foot painting is a dramatically shadowed depiction of surgery on a boy whose mother cringes in the background.

The National Gallery has arranged to share the work with co-purchaser Alice Walton, the daughter of the Wal-Mart founder and herself the founder of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a gallery scheduled to open in 2009 in Bentonville, Ark.

Yesterday the Jefferson trustees voted to sell their most famous work, despite some sentimental reservations. "It depicts a transition in teaching in medical schools that was revolutionary at that time and happening here. Over the years, the painting has been revered and is part of the Jefferson lore," said Brian G. Harrison, chairman of the school's board of trustees.

Despite its obscure location, the painting has long been cited as one of the city's cultural treasures. The sale is contingent upon no art museum or government agency in Philadelphia matching the offer.

The reaction to the sale was immediate in Philadelphia, with Anne d'Hamoncourt, the director of the prestigious Philadelphia Museum of Art, saying that local arts organizations would try to keep the work in town.

"It would be fabulous if this very great painting can stay in Philadelphia. I hope we can band together and make this happen," she said. "Eakins is about the people, the landscapes, the professional. He resonates with the city in a huge way."

If no other buyer emerges by Dec. 26, the National Gallery will most likely display the painting in January, said Earl A. Powell III, the gallery's director.

"What we have here is one of America's iconic masterpieces, and now it will stay in the public domain, if all goes through," he said. "We want to bring it into the sunlight of public display."

The painting has been at the top of many critics' lists as a historic work that set a new style and embodies American values.

"This is the Holy Grail of American painting," said John Wilmerding, former deputy director at the National Gallery. A member of the gallery's board, Wilmerding is also a consultant to Alice Walton. "It is monumental in its ambition and shows the triumph of the individual."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company