Not “Gross” Like Disgusting…Well…

Over fall break I had the incredible opportunity to visit my friend who lives in Philadelphia and of course you know what I did. If you’re reading an art blog and you DON’T know where I went, I am surprised (but welcome you anyway).

After going up the Rocky Stairs (at a walking pace, with no shadow boxing) I entered one of the number one museums on my “To Visit This Year” list, The Philadelphia Museum of Art! Now this museum is full of content–I could really write about it forever. But, since I only have a couple paragraphs of your attention, I decided to focus on my friend’s favorite piece on display there. Life size, controversial, incredibly detailed, and totally out of my normal wheelhouse: The Gross Clinic painted by Thomas Eakins. 

The Gross Clinic, Thomas Eakins (1875)

In this amazing work, Eakins portrays a tense moment in a surgery demonstration from surgeon Dr. Samuel Gross. If you’re like most people, you think the name first comes from the bloody nature of this painting. But no, simply a man with an unfortunate last name. The scene depicts Dr. Gross working on the thigh of a young woman, demonstrating to a classroom of his peers a new technique for treating bone infections. In the bottom corner, the patient’s mother is seen recoiling and crying. Dr. Gross, however, looks incredibly focused and calm.

Now this is one of those things you haven’t seen until you see it in person. A picture on a screen does not, in any way, do it justice. Since I’m so incredibly generous, I will try my best to describe it to you from my perspective as I stood in front of it. You’re very welcome.

When I say this is life sized, I mean it. Each figure is painted as large as a human person, and the painting overall is 8 feet tall. Once you get past the sheer size, the detail is alarming yet beautiful. Even with my face just a few inches away from the canvas, the blood on Dr. Gross’ hand looks so real that I was almost afraid I was in the splash zone for this surgery. I don’t have any idea how he did it, but the way Eakins portrays blood in this painting makes it appear as if the paint never really dried; it glows and shines in almost the same way people say Mona Lisa’s eyes follow you as you walk. Though beautiful, it’s not surprising that this painting was first considered too gruesome for display. You can’t help but stare for a long while, but of course eventually something else in the room calls your name and you start to walk away. But that’s exactly where Eakins grabs you again.

From close up, you can see the audience well enough despite the darkness in the background. But as you walk away, they somehow fade into darkness almost entirely. Standing on the other side of the room, it looked like the lights had been turned off in the lecture hall and a sole spotlight focused on Dr. Gross. I kept finding myself taking a few steps forward and back to gauge the exact moment they faded away, but I swear it changed every time. Eakins finds such an incredible balance between photorealistic detail, and impressionistic images that add to his incredible use of perspective. On top of this, his color and glazing truly make it appear like you’re staring into another world.

If you have the chance, I highly recommend stopping by to see this piece. The museum is huge and incredibly expansive-it’s hard to believe I looked at Sunflowers by Van Gogh and this painting all in the same day. So if you’re traveling through Philly anytime soon, stop in, sign the worker’s petition at the door, and appreciate some art.

(See what I did there, now you’re going to google the protest that took place at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Their cause is worth reading! Off you go!)

Header: Taken by me, duh 🙂

All Body Images: Philadelphia Museum of Art

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