Parodies of The Gross Clinic

photo of the operating theater at jefferson medical college in philadelphia, where six young goofballs wearing old-timey fits have their feet up on the railing, their elbows on their knees, and their hands under their chins as they watch a blurry (thus, moving, because it's a 19th century photo) male figure pretend to examine the crap out of a skull on the operating table. the viewer on the far left is holding a wicker-encased jug of something, and the guy next to him has a cup, so it's a party. there's a chair sitting empty in the lower left corner, and the upper half of the photo is empty bleacher seats.
Thomas Eakins, Parody of ‘The Gross Clinic,’ 1875-76, silver gelatin print, collection:, gift of George Barker

I’m not the biggest Thomas Eakins fan, but I did live in Philadelphia, so I’m at least familiar. I confess, I hadn’t really given him or his work much thought since his 1876 masterpiece, The Gross Clinic, was the target of Alice Walton’s surreptitious Crystal Bridges acquisition spree in the mid 2000s. With the help of her secret art adviser, National Gallery of Art curator John Wilmerding, Walton scouted out the most important works of American art held by institutions who were financially vulnerable, indifferently managed, and/or unbound by professional museum ethics–and then she bought it in a flash. It was a shock tactic that worked–until it didn’t, in Philadelphia.

thomas eakins' painting of a 19th century operating theater, with a fuzzy white-haired dr gross holding a scalpel in his bloody right hand and looking around the theater, while three male assistants are arranged around the sliced open thigh of a young boy, we think, with his butt cheek hanging out on the right, and one more attendant where the patient's head must be. there's a woman in a bonnet, wincing, and covering her face with clawing hands, probably the kid's mom, and an unconcerned dude in row one, upper left of the canvas, taking notes. moody, naturalistic, and gross. pun probably intended.
Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875, oil on whatever canvas the conservationists managed to save, collection: PMA/PAFA, image: wikipedia

Walton’s agreement to pay $68 million for The Gross Clinic to Jefferson Medical College, where it had hung for over a hundred years, was announced in November 2006. The painting would be jointly owned by Walton’s Crystal Bridges and Wilmerding’s National Gallery. Within weeks, the city, its museums, its politicians, and its donor class rallied to keep The Gross Clinic in town. The Philadelphia Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, where Eakins taught, ended up owning it together.

None of which has anything to do with anything, really, except that The Gross Clinic was such a controversial painting when it was made, with a combination of scientific innovation and gore-as-naturalism, that it made the scandals over Eakins’ nude models in co-ed classes seem tame by comparison. It’s always felt like the most serious work Eakins ever made, uptight, even, and so different from the self-consciously carefree homosociality of the Swimming Hole or whatever. Even though both complicated paintings, full of figures, were so closely linked to photography for their meticulous compositions.

Eakins' goofballs are all on the floor of the operating theater now, pretending to carve up or react to the carving up of one of them who lies, foreshortened as a mantegna corpse, on the table. One guy on the left is gesturing grandly while holding a hatchet. another, standing on chairs, looks like he's plunging a spear into the patient's heart. one guy in the foreground crouches down, his back to the camera, holding the vic's feet, and a drama queen in a chair on the left grips the table with one hand and buries his face in his other elbow, cringe. these are not serious people.
Thomas Eakins, also Parody of ‘The Gross Clinic,’ 1875-76, silver gelatin print, collection:, gift of George Barker

So it was a trip and a half to stumble across not just one photograph, but two, titled Parody of ‘The Gross Clinic’, in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum this morning. Here, at the very moment of The Gross Clinic‘s realization, are Yung Eakins and his posse, in the operating theater, goofin’ for the camera. They’ve got their feet up, passing the jug. They’re recoiling in mock horror as they pretend to dissect each other. There’s a frivolity and energy that I don’t see in the hundreds of Eakins photos in the Academy’s collection.

Thomas Eakins, Egg, c.1884, painted wood, given to the Philadelphia Museum by George Barker, Jr., in 1961. h/t @mlobelart

Again, what I don’t know about Eakins could fill several books, but these feel like exceptional Eakins objects. It’s interesting to consider how they came into the Philadelphia Museum’s collection. The parody prints–including one printed later from the 1875-76 negative–were donated by George Barker in 1977. A George Barker, Junior also donated an unusual Eakins object, a small nub of turned, painted wood, like the sawed off end of a broom handle, which carries the title, Egg. Prof. Michael Lobel tweeted it out this morning, noting its sleek, proto-Brancusian form.

George Barker, Jr., Egg, 1960, painted wood the same little size as the Thomas Eakins Egg, one of two the artist (Barker) gave to the Philadelphia Museum along with Eakins’ original

It dates from 1884. Barker, Junior dated from 1882, and he died in 1965. I assume he’s related to Professor George Barker, who was a prominent chemist and public intellectual at the University of Pennsylvania when Eakins painted his portrait in 1886. Did Eakins give young Barker Egg as a gift? How did it leave such an impression on Barker that before he donated Egg to the Philadelphia Museum, he made two facsimiles of it, and donated them, too?

The other Egg. Barker made this in 1960, and donated it in 1961. Has the Philadelphia Museum ever shown them? And if so, did Robert Breer see them?

There’s a story there, of how and why George Barker, Jr. ended up with a trove of weird Eakins stuff, and I hope it gets told. Anyway, today was Eakins’ birthday.