“The Gross Clinic” by Thomas Eakins


Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic” was completed in 1875 and is regarded as one of the most significant American paintings ever made. The master work of scientific realism features renowned American academic trauma surgeon, Dr. Samuel Gross, performing surgery among his students in Jefferson Medical College’s surgical amphitheater. Eakins completed the work in hopes of being featured in the Centennial Exposition of 1876, but the piece was rejected as critics deemed the painting too bloody and gruesome for the galleries. Though many were taken by its theatricality, “The Gross Clinic” is an important marker in the history of medicine and in the emergence of surgery as a method of healing, not just a reality of amputation.

“The subject shocked viewers unused to seeing such a frightening event depicted in such realistic detail. Bright red blood colors the surgeon’s fingers and scalpel, and the gaping incision is fascinating, repulsive, and confusing because it is so hard to read the position of the patient’s body. Although some viewers admired Eakins’s command of composition, color, and detail, and praised his convincing creation of form and space, many were repelled by what was considered ugly and inartistic realism.” – Philadelphia Museum of Art

A critic for the New York Tribune wrote: “... one of the most powerful, horrible, yet fascinating pictures that has been painted anywhere in this century...but the more one praises it, the more one must condemn its admission to a gallery where men and women of weak nerves must be compelled to look at it, for not to look at it is impossible.” 

Eakins chose Dr. Gross as his subject thoughtfully. Not only are Dr. Gross’ contributions to medicine great, but he was a prominent leader in Philadelphia, the city of Eakins’ birth and the Centennial Exposition. Samuel Gross served as an advisor to the US Surgeon General during the Civil War, and wrote "A Manual of Military Surgery; or, Hints on the Emergencies of Field, Camp and Hospital Practice" in 1861. The manual was the first of its kind, and provided medical instruction for Union Army battlefield surgeons. It was later pirated by South, and a Confederate version was released in 1862. Later on, Dr. Gross served as the twentieth president of the American Medical Association from 1868-69, and published many surgical texts throughout his career.  

The Gross Clinic” is on permanent display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a few blocks away from where it was originally painted. 

Learn more about “The Gross Clinic” and its wild journey through painstaking restoration here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128721065