an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

“The Gross Clinic’s” Startling Restoration: Before-and-After Photos of Eakins’ Masterpiece CLARIFIED

[CLARIFICATION: Due to the Philadelphia Museum’s inaccurate characterizations of the images that it originally sent me, my comparative analysis, below, of “The Gross Clinic,” before and after conservation, is in error. For my clarifying post, with the correct before-and-after images, please go here.]

This is going to take some getting used to.

Thomas Eakins‘ celebrated “The Gross Clinic,” purchased jointly for $68 million in 2007 by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, is being returned to public view on Saturday as part of a larger exhibition, after a startlingly transformative restoration overseen by Mark Tucker, the museum’s vice chair of conservation and senior conservator of paintings. The overall tonality of the painting is now considerably less dramatic and more subdued, “as Eakins intended it to be,” according to the Philadelphia Museum’s press release.

What I’m wondering is how the entire cast of the painting has changed so dramatically, through a restoration that the museum insists was accomplished strictly by filling in losses. It does appear (from comments made to the Philadelphia Inquirer, below) that the conservators painted over Eakins’ underpainting, from which the top layers had been scrubbed away by overzealous restorers in the 1920s.

See for yourself. Here are the before and after pictures, provided by the museum:


Thomas Eakins, “The Gross Clinic,” 1875, before restoration, Philadelphia
Museum of Art and
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts


The same painting, after restoration

The restorers themselves acknowledged the difficult issues posed by this over-cleaned painting, in the conservation
posted on the Philadelphia Museum’s Gross
Clinic website

many years, owners and restorers often did not understand the
intentional low key of Eakins’s paintings, and felt they would be
improved if they looked brighter and higher in contrast. Cleanings
motivated by such thinking broke through and removed the final veils of
paint Eakins had used to perfect the relationships of tones.

and more colorful foundation layers exposed by overcleaning were never
meant to be seen in finished pictures. This is what happened in the “The
Gross Clinic’s” operating theater tunnel; Eakins underpainted it in
the red-orange color, adding the dark tone and figures to the painting
at a later point. Attempting to lighten this dark passage, a restorer in
the 1920’s discovered the color underneath and, for whatever reason,
preferring it to Eakins’s deep tone, inappropriately uncovered it.

By clicking the Conservation
tab on the same website, we also learn:

The removal of the 1961 varnish
and retouching in the cleaning will
reveal the actual state of The Gross Clinic, that is, the
condition of Eakins’s paint with all the alterations and incidental
damages incurred over 134 years exposed. At that stage of the treatment,
the visual gap separating the painting’s present appearance from the
way it looked originally will be widest; however, what survives of
Eakins’s own work will also be clearest.

The question of what should be
done, ethically, philosophically, and practically, to reconcile the
changed appearance of a painting with its original state is the defining
challenge at the core of every restoration. The path to be taken in our
restoration of “The Gross Clinic” will be the subject of ongoing
discussion as we move through the present examination phase, and into
the treatment.

The museum’s officials discussed the outcome of that “ongoing discussion” with Stephan Salisbury of the Philadelphia Inquirer, for his recent article on the restoration.

Salisbury reports their somewhat defensive comments:

only by patching in at a microscopic level every little loss
that we see here and working with the documentation that the picture
starts to come together again,” Tucker [the conservator] said.

“He’s not covering up
any of Eakins’ paint. He’s just filling the
damages,” interjected [Kathleen] Foster [senior curator of American art].

“Restoration is provisional. It
reflects taste,” Tucker said. “It
used to be denied that it reflected taste, but we admit the bias. So in
this restoration we are going to take the tunnel back tonally to where
it is here [in a 1875-76 Eakins wash drawing]. Now the rules of
conservation say you can’t change the known character of the original.
Well, we’re not doing that. We’re changing a damaged area. This is not
original paint surface. This is an underpainting….

Said Foster:
“It’s completely reversible. You can get back to this
[unrestored state] at any time.”

There’s more by Salisbury about the restoration, here.

I’ll be unable to attend Thursday’s “Gross Clinic” press preview; I’ll be elsewhere in the same state on a five-day work-cation (posting sporadically, if at all, until next week). But I’ll be delighted, when I do get the chance to visit, to see my
wish at last granted: Thomas Eakins‘ two medical masterpieces—“The
Gross Clinic” and “The Agnew Clinic”—will finally be exhibited side-by-side.

Although both have long resided in Philly, this is said to be
the first time that they’ve been seen together in the same room.

Eakins, “The Agnew Clinic,” 1889, on long-term loan to Philadelphia Museum from the University of Pennsylvania

an ArtsJournal blog