Thomas Eakins is not a painter. He is a force. -- Walt Whitman
The Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia performs a secondary function of which few people, even those living across the street, are aware. It is a museum, one of limited space but significant proportions. In a locked, brick-walled lounge, hang three brooding canvasses by one of the city's greatest artists, Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins.
The central painting of the three is "The Gross Clinic," completed in 1875 after Eakins had returned from an extended journey to Europe determined to paint a masterpiece.
Dr. Samuel David Gross, a reknowned surgeon of his time, is shown in a medical theater, lecturing on the proper method of removing a piece of diseased bone from a patient's thigh. Eakins' project, an accurate portrayal of surgery, disgusted many of his contemporaries. A critic for The New York Tribune wrote on March 22, 1879: "No purpose is gained by this morbid exhibition--the painter shows his skill--and the spectator's gorge rises at it--that is all."
Eakins, for his part, sought to illuminate rather than modify the harshness of surgery. The skylight sheds most of its bright attention on the doctor's white hair, his blood-spattered right hand (which holds a scalpel), and the patient's bleeding incision. In the half-light, students busily scribble notes or doze while one female figure cringes with horror as if she were more than just an observer--the patient's wife or mother, perhaps.
After nine months of work, Eakins completed "The Gross Clinic" in time for Philadelphia's Centennial Exhibition. In ambition, subject and tone, the 8-foot-high by 6 1/2-foot-wide work is reminiscent of Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp."
And yet many people, even those who take their time in the Eakins room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art across town, fail to visit the painter's most ambitious work.
"Not too many people come to see the paintings," said a security guard named Ronald Stubbs at the Jefferson complex. "Maybe two or three people will come up and ask us to open the gate for them during the week, and we do. Anybody can see them between 10 and 4. But some days, nobody asks us at all. I guess not a lot of people know they're here."
Eakins' second painting celebrating a medical subject is "The Agnew Clinic," a portrait of Dr. David Hayes Agnew. When Agnew was to retire from the University of Pennsylvania medical school faculty in 1889, three undergraduates commissioned Eakins for the work.
The painting now hangs in the medical school's Laboratory of Pathology, Physiology and Pharmacology, one of the oldest buildings on Hamilton Walk. The portrait, which again places its heroic figure in a surgical amphitheatre, can be found at the end of a long hall, and is best viewed from the top of a nearby stairway.
The hall, by the way, makes no further artistic gestures. The closest "exhibition" is a riveting display entitled "Dermatology Matures in Pennsylvania."
But for a four-year sojourn to Europe in his early twenties, Thomas Eakins lived nearly all his life at 1729 Mount Vernon St. in Philadelphia. As the leading representative of the American naturalist movement, he took for his subjects not only the elevated medical profession, but also the more quotidian scenes and aspects of 19th century Philadelphia.
As a student, Eakins learned the major European languages in high school and the art of drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he later taught from 1876 to 1886. And at Jefferson Medical College he studied anatomy, observing surgical demonstrations such as the ones performed by Gross and Agnew. He also performed dissections on his own. Like Leonardo, Eakins took the study of the human body, both healthy and diseased, to be both a scientific and an artistic education.
In addition to "The Gross Clinic" and "The Agnew Clinic," Eakins completed a number of bronze anatomical casts. His "Right Shoulder, Arm and Hand" and "Back Male Torso" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art are works of extraordinary beauty. Although they were principally an educational tool for both the painter and his students, the casts are a simple tribute to the innate beauty of the body's details--the veins and muscles of the arm, the skeletal structure of the back.
In addition, Eakins also displayed his fascination with human movement and structure with a sequence of photographs in the style of Eadweard Muybridge of a naked man pole vaulting and a boy long jumping.
Eakins' earliest paintings, many of which are on display at the museum, portray a kind of pastoral Philadelphia.
Perhaps his loveliest Philadelphia work is "The Pair-Oared Shell." In the burnished early morning light, two men row down the Schuylkill River. Their oars hardly disturb the rippled reflections of the bridge and sky above them, and the line of trees behind them.
"There is so much beauty in reflections that it is generally well worth while to try to get them right," Eakins told one of his classes in a lecture, and in "The Pair Oared Shell" he has done exactly that.
As perspective drawings reveal, Eakins deliberately placed an image of strength and exertion in the center of tranquility. Because of this balance, the athletes' effort seems measured and true, the water calm and flowing. Eakins was a painstaking craftsman. He worked from reality and he tried to reproduce it without refraction or deliberate distortion.
Dr. Agnew posed 96 hours for him, and, in preparation for this painting, Eakins made precise, geometrical notes on just where each glimmer of light should fall.
"The Pair-Oared Shell" hangs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a room filled with portraits, landscapes and photographs.
With the arrival of photographic technology, Eakins began to use the camera not only as a primary instrument but also as a means of "sketching." For his "Arcadia" series, Eakins took photographs of country scenes around the city, the most famous of which is "The Swimming Hole."
The most moving of Eakins' late work, at least for this viewer, is his portrait photograph of Walt Whitman. While his earlier painting of Whitman, with its broad brushstrokes and smiling eyes, portrays the sentimental poet of "O Captain, My Captain," the photograph reveals the powers, diminishing though they may be, of the poet who wrote a much wiser, felt elegy for Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."
With both artists nearing their death, they both reveal their quiet strengths. Whitman, with his white hair and white beard flowing and filled with sunlight, was, in Buddhist terms, a crazy wisdom prophet who wrote the tales of his tribe. Eakins' great gift, of course, was to be able to bring out all that his subjects were, with honesty and sympathy.
To find so much of his work, one must travel only two hours north. To Philadelphia.