Philadelphia Blocks Sale of Eakins Painting by Matching $68 Million Bid

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2006

"The Gross Clinic," a masterwork of Thomas Eakins, isn't coming to Washington after all.

A vigorous campaign in Philadelphia, the painting's home since it was painted in 1875, has raised enough money to match the $68 million that the National Gallery of Art and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art were willing to pay for the painting.

Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street announced yesterday that a successful drive had been completed in 45 days, just before the deadline. The Annenberg Foundation, founded by publisher Walter Annenberg, contributed $10 million. Three other donors -- H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, a cable billionaire; Joseph Neubauer, chairman of Aramark Corp.; and the Pew Charitable Trusts -- gave $3 million each. Any shortage will be covered by loans from Wachovia Bank and the city. Organizers said there were 2,300 donations from 30 states.

The painting is owned by Thomas Jefferson University, the Philadelphia medical school where Eakins studied anatomy. The university was selling the painting to finance an expansion.

"Eakins's iconic painting 'The Gross Clinic' is by a Philadelphian, about Philadelphians and set in Philadelphia," Street said. "It belongs in Philadelphia just as much as the Liberty Bell and our sports teams. We extend profound thanks to the citizens of Philadelphia who made it possible to keep this important piece of our cultural heritage right here where it belongs. What a remarkable gift in this season of giving!"

"The Gross Clinic" depicts physician Samuel D. Gross, the first chair of surgery at Jefferson, showing his students an innovative procedure to remove dead tissue from the thighbone of an adolescent. A dramatic scene that breaks from the stylized portraits and subject matter of the day, it is considered by many one of the best 19th-century American artworks.

With great fanfare last month, the university agreed in a private transaction to sell its prized painting to the National Gallery and the Crystal Bridges Museum, a new institution in Bentonville, Ark., started with money from the Walton family, which founded Wal-Mart. It would have been displayed at the two institutions.

In Philadelphia, there was an immediate outcry. Officials launched a campaign to keep the painting, taking advantage of a clause that gave the city 45 days to match the offer.

The fundraising effort was cast as a civic duty, with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the Pew Charitable Trusts and actor Kevin Bacon, a native Philadelphian, calling for its retention.

"It belonged in Philadelphia, and we couldn't let it go," Aramark's Neubauer said in an interview after the news conference.

The painting will be owned jointly and displayed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

"I am a very happy woman," said Anne d'Harnoncourt, the director of the Philadelphia Museum.

Herbert Riband, vice chairman of the academy's board, said Philadelphia "is the place to study Eakins."

Yesterday the National Gallery and Crystal Bridges released a brief statement: "We are disappointed that Eakins's 'Gross Clinic' will not be coming to the nation's capital or America's heartland. However, we are pleased for the city of Philadelphia."

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