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Grand Displays for “Gross”: Present and Future

In its inaugural display of its new stellar acquisition, Thomas Eakins‘ “The Gross Clinic,” the Philadelphia Museum makes it the centerpiece in a room that also displays one of the artist’s oil studies for the painting, as well as his boxing picture, “Between Rounds,” his luminous Schuylkill River scene, “The Pair-Oared Shell” and a portrait of him by his wife, Susan Macdowell Eakins. Surprisingly, The Agnew Clinic, another major Eakins that, like “The Gross Clinic,” depicts a teacher demonstrating surgery to his students, is not included.
Maybe that’s a good thing.
As important as “The Gross Clinic” is, the other medically themed tour de force, on longterm loan to the museum from the University of Pennsylvania, is bigger and at least as ambitious and powerful as the $68-million Eakins. It was painted in 1889, 14 years after “The Gross Clinic.” When I viewed “Agnew” during Saturday night’s party for “Gross” donors, I heard one visitor immediately exclaim, “This one’s better!”
Juxtaposing the two might raise unwelcome questions about whether the Philadelphia Museum really needs to make heroic efforts (along with the joint acquirer, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) to match a high, if not exorbitant, price for another similarly themed painting by the same artist. You can never have too many masterpieces, but the public might begin to have some doubts.
A wall label in the room displaying “The Gross Clinic” encourages visitors to make the trek to the other side of the museum to see the related work. But the good news is that they will eventually be shown together: Norman Keyes, director of media relations for the museum, told me on Saturday that when “The Gross Clinic” returns to his institution after a stint, beginning in March, in the galleries of joint-purchaser PAFA, the Philadelphia Museum will pair the two closely related works, possibly adding with a third spectacular medical masterpiece that he said Philadelphia is hoping to get on temporary loan: Rembrandt‘s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp from the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
In the meantime, if you’d like to experience the current exhibition vicariously, go here or dial 408-794-0888 and at the prompt, add 100#. You will hear the comments by curator Kathleen Foster that on-site visitors are encouraged to access on their cell phones. “The Gross Clinic,” she contends, represents “our very best artist at his very best.” (I guess when you still need to raise $31 million from the public, a little hyperbole is understandable.)
But wait! I also promised you some gubernatorial gossip, didn’t I?
COMING NEXT: Rendell rends Powell.

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