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Conservation Confusion: Philadelphia Museum&#146s “Gross Clinic” Photo Flub

The differences between the “before” and “after” photos that I recently published of Eakins‘ “The Gross Clinic”—pre- and post-conservation—were indeed “startling,” as I had opined in both CultureGrrl and the Huffington Post.

But even more startling was the museum’s subsequent admission to me and other art journalists that it had sent us the wrong images. (See, for example, the correction appended at the bottom of this NY Times article.) The images that I had posted on July 20 were described to me the previous day by the museum’s press office as “images of the painting both before and after it was restored.”

Not so.

The museum now says that that these two images, while dramatically dissimilar, are both photos of the painting BEFORE it was restored. Here’s the head-scratching explanation for this, sent to me by Lindsay Warner of the museum’s press office:

The “before” and “after” images on CultureGrrl are both pre-conservation images. Your “before” image was
taken by our in-house Rights and Reproductions Department, which produces
photos for the purpose of press and publications. It is the photo we were providing up
until last month, when the restoration was complete.

The “after” photo
is a better-quality and color-corrected pre-conservation [emphasis added] image….
Your “after” image was
taken by our Conservation Photography Department, which produces images
for conservation records. The photo taken by Conservation most
accurately represents how the painting appeared before [emphasis added] treatment.

In that case, the photo that, until last month, had been sent to journalists must have been a very inaccurate reproduction of “The Gross Clinic,” since it differs so significantly from the one that has now been dispatched to us as the truer image.

So, art-lings, let’s now try to sort out the three “Gross” photos that have, at various times, landed in my inbox.

Here’s the pre-conservation image of “The Gross Clinic” that journalists, until last month, were routinely sent by the museum—the one that I had posted as the “before” photo:

Thumbnail image for GroClinBef.jpg

Here’s what the museum now says is the more accurate pre-conservation image, as validated by its Conservation Department. It’s the one that I had erroneously called a post-conservation image, relying on the museum’s say-so:

Thumbnail image for GroClinRest.jpg

And here (we can only hope) is the painting as it looks today, after its treatment by the conservators:

GroRestored.jpg

Now I can understand why Philadelphia Inquirer art critic Edward Sozanski wrote last Sunday that the differences in the painting, pre- and post-treatment, “aren’t startling”—a seeming rebuttal to my own headline announcing its “Startling Restoration.”

All of this talk about photo reproductions may be much more than you want to know. But I take very seriously my commitment to accuracy, and I can only say, in this instance, that I was relying on what I thought was an unimpeachable source—the museum itself, which apologized to me (and, I presume, to others) for its unfortunate mix-up.

What I need to do, of course, is make the roadtrip to Philadelphia, to eyeball the newly altered masterpiece myself—on display in a focus exhibition (to Jan. 9).

an ArtsJournal blog