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The city of Philadelphia could get a very nice Christmas present. A local committee is trying to raise $68 million to keep a Thomas Eakins masterpiece called "The Gross Clinic" from being sold to a partnership of museums in Washington, D.C. and Arkansas.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts have asked local residents for money. The fundraising deadline is December 26th. Meantime, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports on what's going on in the painting itself.

SUSAN STAMBERG: On television, somebody's always operating on somebody.

(Soundbite of "Grey's Anatomy")

Unidentified Female: Oh, my ever lovin'...

Mr. JAMES PICKENS (Actor): (As Richard Webber) We need to open her up. I'm taking out the scope. Ten blade.

STAMBERG: Now, you might not want to trust your life to the romance-soaked surgeons on "Grey's Anatomy," but the doctors in Thomas Eakins' painting have their own problems. They're performing surgery on a boy's leg. In 1875, that was an unusual subject for art.

Ms. KATHLEEN FOSTER (Curator of American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art): Very unusual. Very unusual and very shocking.

STAMBERG: Dr. Samuel Gross, a world famous Philadelphia surgeon stands lecturing to students, scalpel in his bloody, gloveless right hand. There's more blood on his assistants and, naturally, the patient.

Kathleen Foster, curator of American art at the Philadelphia Museum, says other artists did clinic paintings - Rembrandt, for instance - but the Eakins is different.

Ms. FOSTER: It was so in-your-face. It was really a surprising, astonishing painting.

STAMBERG: As it remains that we're in 2000, what is this, six, and we're looking at it, a reproduction, and going eww.

Ms. FOSTER: Yeah, I mean I think there's something wrong with you, or maybe you're a surgeon, in order to not feel a certain queasiness looking at this picture.

STAMBERG: If you dare, the image is at NPR.org. Here's what they're all doing in that surgical amphitheater at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, which is where the painting is hanging right now.

Ms. FOSTER: It's an operation to remove dead bone from the thigh of this young boy, probably a teenage boy. And so you can see the other doctors holding open the incision and Dr. Gross is turning to explain to the students what exactly he's doing.

STAMBERG: They're all wearing business suits, dark suits.

Ms. FOSTER: Oh, yeah. In 1875, Dr. Gross would have walked in off the street and done surgery in his three-piece suit.

STAMBERG: Were business suits, were they the fashion then in operating rooms?

JOE PALCA: Well, I don't know if they were actually the fashion.

STAMBERG: We're asking NPR's Joe Palca for some perspective on 19th century medical practices.

PALCA: Doctors didn't really have a sense that they needed to be in a sterile environment.

STAMBERG: They didn't understand about germs and infection...

PALCA: That's right. It wasn't clear where the infections after surgery were coming from. And people didn't actually realize that the doctors were bringing the infections and the germs in with them from the street.

STAMBERG: Right. Joe, don't go away. They'll be another question about this, what curator Kathleen Foster says about the painting's portrayal of how they put patients under in the 1870s.

Ms. FOSTER: At the head of the table, over the patient's head - you cannot see the patient's head - the anesthesiologist is holding a square of cloth over the face of the patient, and that's anesthesia in those days.

PALCA: I talked with Thomas Broman, who's a medical historian at the University of Wisconsin. And they used two different things in those days.

Dr. THOMAS BROMAN (History of Science, University of Wisconsin): One is chloroform and the other is ether. Ether was used for many decades after this.

PALCA: And what they had to do was they would watch the patient and then monitor them just observationally to see if he was getting enough anesthesia because that was the only way to know.

STAMBERG: Dr. Broman also told Joe they didn't linger in the ORs back then.

Dr. BROMAN: I'm pretty confident that in the period we're talking about - the 1870s and 1880s - surgery was pretty quick. You're not talking about the kind of surgery you see on "Grey's Anatomy" where, you know, you've got people in there for hours and hours and hours.

STAMBERG: The lighting was pretty good, though, at least in the painting. Mostly, "The Gross Clinic" is dark - all those business suits. But Eakins shows Dr. Gross standing in a shaft of light.

Ms. FOSTER: Because he's using an absolutely natural realistic light source; that is, it's the oculus at the top of the surgical amphitheater. That's the way he operated. In fact, if you think about it, operations in those days always took place at lunchtime because the sun was overhead and so the light was the best in the middle of the day for surgery. So that's the time that's being shown here. But the way that light works to fall across Dr. Gross's forehead so he looks like this sort of secular saint - his hair is glowing, his forehead literally is glowing as if the inspiration and wisdom is coming from it. It's an amazing use of realistic light.

STAMBERG: Dr. Gross is a hero in this painting. But over on the right-hand side of the canvas, sitting in near darkness, a shadowy observer.

Ms. FOSTER: It's Eakins himself. And I think it's a record of Eakins own presence in that surgical amphitheater, that he himself had been a student of Gross. And I think it's a way to kind of give authenticity to the painting, to say I was a witness to this; I was there.

STAMBERG: Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins was 31 years old when he did this six by eight foot canvas. Often called the greatest 19th century American artist, Eakins made it a point to watch surgeries and even perform dissections at Jefferson Medical School. He was a fanatic about the need for artists to understand anatomy.

Ms. FOSTER: Because he felt that to make a convincing figure painting, you really needed to know how the body worked and how weight was distributed on the frame and how muscles worked.

STAMBERG: No one knows the name of the patient in "The Gross Clinic" or what happened to him but, Joe Palca, apparently his chances were pretty good.

PALCA: That's right. Dr. Gross had gotten his technique down where he only scraped away the dead bone. Apparently in the past they would amputate the leg. And so this was a less invasive procedure. He was good at it and there's a good chance that this patient would have survived.

STAMBERG: NPR's Joe Palca.

Shocking, violent - when Thomas Eakins's painting "The Gross Clinic" was shown in New York, a critic called it one of the most powerful, horrible, yet fascinating pictures that has been painted anywhere in this century.

In 1878, three years after Eakins made the painting, some of Dr. Gross's former students bought it for Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. They paid $200. Soon it will be sold; this time the price is $68 million.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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