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Thomas Eakins

Thomas Eakins

Thomas Eakins, born in Philadelphia on July 25, 1844, is considered one of America's greatest artists. His formal art training started in 1862 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where some of his works are still displayed. In 1886, Eakins traveled to Paris to continue learning under European masters, traveling to Madrid and Seville before returning to Philadelphia in 1870.

Known for his honest and accurate portraits that uncompromisingly captured the essence of his subjects, two of his most famous works are of Philadelphia surgeons -The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic (pictured below).

Agnew Clinic It is a picture strong men find difficult to look at, if they can look at it at all; and as for people with nerves and stomachs, the scene is so real that they might as well go to a dissecting room and have done with it... No purpose is gained by this morbid exhibition, no lesson taught - the painter shows his skill - and the spectator's gorge rises at it - that is all.

Judges for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 deemed it unsuitable for showing in the art galleries of Philadelphia, and instead was shown alongside medical displays in the US Army Post Hospital Exhibit. In 1878 the alumni association of the Jefferson Medical College purchased the painting for $200.

In a contrast which shows Thomas Eakins' growing recognition as an accomplished painter, a group of Penn medical students offered Eakins $750 in 1889 to paint retiring Dr. Hayes Agnew. Dr. Agnew was also a leading surgeon, cared for President Garfield following his assassination, and was chair of surgery at Penn. The largest painting Eakins ever made at 6 1/2 by 11 feet, The Agnew Clinic gave the Penn students a portrait not only of their hero, but also of themselves as the surgical amphitheater audience. Each face in the background is an identifiable portrait of a student. Although lacking the prominent blood of the The Gross Clinic, Eakins again met critical disapproval when The Agnew Clinic was denied exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts after it was deemed "not cheerful for ladies to look at."

The subject of these two American masterpieces illustrate many of the fundamental principles of medicines. One principal is the physician as healer. Dr. Gross is removing necrotic bone from a man with osteomyelitis of the femur, saving him the extreme morbidity of a leg amputation; Dr. Agnew is removing a woman's breast. A second principal is the doctor as thinker and teacher. Dr. Gross has paused in the midst of his operation and Dr. Agnew has stepped away from the operating table. Surgery is not shown as a flurry of cutting and rending, but as an activity of contemplation and reflection. Both surgeons are also seen explaining to the gathered students the salient points of the moment, showing the importance of teaching while healing and not wasting opportunities to pass knowledge to the next generation of physicians - the very foundation on which my education rests. A third principal is the doctor as learner and innovator. This is best illustrated by comparing two paintings. The most obvious difference is the use of white gowns and drapes in the later Agnew Clinic, as compared to the street clothes worn by the operating team in 1876. This shows that although Dr. Agnew was old and near retirement, he was not so set in this ways as to ignore the growing acceptance of Joseph Lister's theories on antisepsis, which were formulated in the 1870's. The use of sterile metal instrument tray in 1889, in contrast to the felt-lined drawers of 1875, also illustrates this point. Further acceptance of new technology is seen by the lighting of Agnew's operating theater by electric lights (invented only in 1879), rather than the shaft of sunlight solely illuminating Gross's portrait.

Sewell, D. Thomas Eakins: Artist of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1982.

Thomas Eakins: Image of the Surgeon. Baltimore, MD: Walters Art Gallery: The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, 1989.

Goodrich, Lloyd. Thomas Eakins. Cambridge, MA: Published for the National Gallery of Art [by] Harvard University Press, 1982.


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