Gross Clinic: A plea for money

A mass email from Sandy Smith

Hello again, everyone:

I’m sure that all of you who live in the Philadelphia area, and even many of you who live outside it, have by now heard about the secretly arranged sale of Thomas Eakins’ painting “The Gross Clinic,” arguably the greatest American painting of the 19th century, to the Walton family’s planned tourist magnet museum in Bentonville, Ark., by its current owner, Thomas Jefferson University.

The terms of the sale give local institutions 45 days — until Dec. 11 [sic. it’s Dec. 26] — to match the agreed-upon sale price of $68 million; if the effort fails, off the painting goes to Arkansas, after a three-year-or-so layover at the co-purchaser, the National Gallery of Art. And thus does a respected (until now, at least) institution of higher learning hold its own, and a region’s, cultural patrimony hostage.

Why this painting matters

For those of you not familiar with this painting, it depicts Dr. Samuel S. Gross, a noted physician and teacher at Jefferson, conducting a medical lecture while operating on the thigh of a young patient. Generations of Jefferson students have come to regard this painting — donated to the medical school by its alumni two years after it was completed — as the embodiment of their purpose in life as physicians and Jefferson’s purpose as an educational institution. Previous offers to purchase the painting were turned down flat by Jefferson’s board of trustees. The current board, taking leave of its senses, chose bricks and mortar and unspecified future improvements to the educational program over stewardship, and, in an act all too appropriate in our overly materialistic times, opted to sell the painting for as much cash as it could get.

Jefferson has every right to do this. But there are some objects that one cannot, or ought not, put a price on, for their value lies elsewhere. This is one of them, and the outrage rising from just about all the constituencies who ought to have had some input into this process — Jefferson students, Jefferson alumni, art lovers all over the region, and even people like me who just happen to live up the street from the gallery where the painting is displayed — should make it clear what a grave error the Jefferson trustees made in going about the sale in this fashion.

The pitch for your fair share

But none of that matters now. The deed is done, and the ransom note has been issued. I had suggested on Libby Rosof and Roberta Fallon’s Artblog that if every resident of greater Philadelphia donated a mere $15, we would have their asking price easily in hand. This suggestion may not be as impractical as it sounds, for the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (which has spent most of the years since kicking Eakins off its faculty atoning for that mistake) have set up a fund to receive donations from anyone interested in righting this wrong and keeping Eakins’ masterpiece where it belongs.

I just chipped in $25 towards that effort. I’d appreciate it if you could do the same. Even if you never set foot in Philly, you will have helped send a message to others elsewhere who might consider such ill-advised moves.



–Sandy Smith is a writer and publicist who used to work with me at Penn