Thinking About The Gross Clinic

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The Gross Clinic, Eakins, 1875 /Image: THE PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART

They have finally tied up the last of the loose ends in the succession of deaccessions required to keep Thomas Eakins’ mighty canvas The Gross Clinic in Philadelphia. This is a sale that’s been wrapped into the larger uproar over schools like Fisk University and Randolph College that have been trying to sell off work from their campus collections. But it needs to be understood in a different framework.

First let’s recap. In 2006 Thomas Jefferson University, a Philadelphia medical school that has owned The Gross Clinic since 1878, agreed to sell it for $68 million in a joint-purchase arrangement to the National Gallery of Art in Washington and to the Wal-Mart heiress Alice Waters for her upcoming Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark. But Jefferson was persuaded to give Philadelphia institutions 45 days to match the price. Eventually the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts came forward with their own joint purchase offer. Jefferson accepted, and also gave the buyers additional time to come up with the full amount. (As a consolation prize, Jefferson eventually sold to Walton another Eakins, Portrait of Professor Benjamin H. Rand, for a reported $20 million.)

To raise money for the deal the Academy quickly sold off a lesser but still considerable Eakins, The Cello Player, that it had owned since 1897. (We’ll get back to this.) Then came the news of earlier this week, when the Philadelphia Museum announced that, to raise the remainder of its own share of the purchase price, it had also sold off three works from its sizeable Eakins holdings. A painting, Cowboy Singing, was purchased jointly by the Denver Art Museum and the Denver-based Anschutz Collection. The Denver Art Museum also separately purchased two oil sketches that Eakins made around 1887, the year he made a trip to the Dakotas, for a painting called Cowboys in the Badlands that’s already in the Anschutz Collection.

Cowboy Singing, Eakins, ca. 1892 /Image: THE PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART

So, you might say, smiles all around. Philly gets to keep The Gross Clinic. Jefferson gets its millions. The Denver Art Museum gets its first Eakins. And for good measure, the Philadelphia Art Museum has another Eakins oil not so different from the one it sold Denver.

So where is the confusion? When it first announced its intention to sell The Gross Clinic, Jefferson University was widely criticized for not living up to the standard we rightfully apply to a university art gallery, which is not supposed to sell pictures to raise money for the school’s general revenues. But as I pointed out in a blogpost last April…

Jefferson does not actually have a campus museum, at least not in the way that, say, Yale, Harvard or Fisk all do. Much of its collection consists of portraits of distinguished faculty hung in various hallways. (In 1982, the school’s three canvases by Eakins were moved to their own gallery, however, along a with a few other pieces.)

To apply to a medical school that has no mission as an arts institution the rules that apply to schools that do seems to me like mission creep.

Having said that, there’s one last piece of this puzzle that doesn’t make for a happy ending. The Cello Player, the Eakins canvas sold by the Pennsylvania Academy, disappeared into a private sale. There’s no telling when or if it will ever be on public view again, though the anonymous buyer reportedly agreed to lend it back to the Academy occasionally. In this case it was poor judgment on the part of PAFA, which appears to have teamed with the much larger Philadelphia Museum to buy The Gross Clinic without a clear idea of how it would come up with its share of the money. Whereas the Philly could sell off secondary works to get to the magic number, the Academy had to let go of a big one. It should have looked for another way.

The Cello Player, Eakins, 1896