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."
Jefferson plans to invest the proceeds in a new education building and the expansion of other complexes. The work has been housed in the student center, the art gallery of which gets about 500 visitors a year. The National Gallery, founded in 1937, has 4.5 million visitors a year.
Both the painting and the artist have been the subject of debate and devotion, not only during his lifetime but since his death in 1916.
Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins, a native of Philadelphia, studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as well as in Paris and Spain. He also studied anatomy at Jefferson and taught at the Pennsylvania Academy. There he insisted on using nude models both in the classroom and in his private studio, circumstances that horrified the school's officials. After one class in 1886, where a male model had disrobed in front of female students, Eakins was dismissed. He also extensively photographed nudes, including himself and his wife, which raised questions about his sexuality and artistic purpose.
"The Gross Clinic," which Eakins painted at age 31, is a monumental scene of Dr. Samuel D. Gross, the first chair of surgery at Jefferson, overseeing an operation on an adolescent's leg in the surgical amphitheater at the school. The scene bristles with activity. Four students are in the foreground with the formally dressed Gross. In the background are forms and shadows of rows of students. In the right part of the canvas, Eakins painted himself.
Though it is a grim painting, the portraits of the doctor, his students and the boy's mother are extremely dynamic and represent a break from the pretty, stylized portraits of the day. Its dark panorama, Powell said, has led many critics to call it "America's 'Nightwatch' " after the majestic canvas by Rembrandt.
The painting, with the doctor's bloodstained hands, the stark cutting of the boy's leg and the horror of his mother, who has covered her face with her hands, was considered offensive. A jury for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition rejected it. Criticism of the work pained Eakins.
"His disappointment no doubt prompted him to shift his artistic focus," wrote Wilmerding.
Yet the work was championed for following the path of artists who viewed science as art, extending from the Greeks to Leonardo da Vinci.
"I would compare it to Leonardo," Powell said. The oil canvas "tells a story, has a great composition with the all-powerful personality in the doctor. It is a remarkable work of art," Powell said. For such an important work, the $68 million price tag seems like a bargain nowadays, with works by Jackson Pollack selling for $140 million at auction.
The National Gallery owns 10 of Eakins's paintings, as well as a drawing and a sculpture.
Powell said the work will complement other American masterpieces on display, including works by John Singleton Copley, Rembrandt Peale, James McNeill Whistler and George Bellows.
"This painting will add immeasurably to the gallery presentations on 19th-century art and would fill the gap in anyone's 19th-century work," he said.
Robert Workman, the executive director of Crystal Bridges, said the purchase was a one-of-a-kind investment for the planned facility in Arkansas.
"We are going to have 20,000 square feet of permanent collection space," he said. "We really want to bring together master works that resonate with history."
Neither Powell nor Workman would discuss the percentage each party contributed to the record sale. The technical details for sharing the painting after Crystal Bridges opens have not been worked out.
Alice Walton, the daughter of Sam Walton, last year bought another iconic 19th-century painting, Asher Durand's "Kindred Spirits," and loaned it to the National Gallery.