Restored “Gross Clinic” debuts in Philadelphia

    Much of the work was un-doing damage from an earlier restoration that sought to brighten a dark painting.

    Starting Saturday, you can see one of the most famous 19th century American paintings like you’ve never seen it before. “The Gross Clinic” by Thomas Eakins has been restored by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Conservators repaired damage caused by earlier restoration efforts.

    The restored work, at right, shows much more detail.
    The restored work, at right, show much more detail.

    The Gross Clinic is a very dark painting. The scene is a surgical auditorium overseen by Dr. Samual Gross where the seats in the background are filled with medical students. They are painted mostly in black with shades of brown. Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Kathleen Foster says that’s how artist Thomas Eakins intended it.
    “It was a popular style in Paris in 1960’s when he was studying there. Moving from light to dark, picking figures out of darkness. He is working an old master way in an aggressively modern subject.”

    Conservators in the 1920’s didn’t see it that way. In an effort to remove 50 years of grime and brighten up the painting, they cleaned and cleaned until they took off a top layer of dark paint. The Museum head conservator, Mark Tucker, says it threw off the painting’s color balance – like a doorway Eakins painted behind the operating table.

    “It turned from a subdued brown to a bright orange – that orange was the under-painting that Eakins had, then toned down to get the shadowy tone he wanted.”

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    Three years ago the Gross Clinic was bought by both the Museum and the Academy of Fine Arts for $68 million in order to keep it in Philadelphia. Tucker says it now looks like it did when it came of Eakin’s easel in 1875.

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