LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
Thomas Eakins was one of the most important artists in American history, and "The Gross Clinic" is one of his masterpieces. It depicts a surgeon in mid-operation. In fact, "The Gross Clinic" has been called the finest American painting of the 19th century. But curators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art say the version in art history textbooks is not the one Eakins painted in 1875. So they undertook a meticulous operation of their own to restore it.
Joel Rose has the story.
JOEL ROSE: In the foreground of "The Gross Clinic," we see surgeon Samuel Gross with a scalpel in his bloody hand, bathed in light. Behind him, in the shadows, are dozens of onlookers - including, at the edge of the frame, the painter himself.
Ms. KATHLEEN FOSTER (Curator, Philadelphia Museum of Art): You can see his cuff, and his hand holding a pencil. He's leaning forward and watching the surgery. You can see his shoulder.
ROSE: I can.
Ms. FOSTER: Okay.
ROSE: It's pretty dark, though.
Ms. FOSTER: Yeah. You're not supposed to notice Eakins right away. He's supposed to be just a kind of quiet witness. And so the figures in the foreground now, they take their proper place.
ROSE: Kathleen Foster is a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and an expert on Eakins. She says time and misguided restoration attempts have long obscured that detail and highlighted others.
Ms. FOSTER: One of the most stunning things for me in this whole project was realizing that the painting we've been looking at for the last 85 years was not really Eakins' painting; that it had really been changed - altered in significant ways.
ROSE: The most dramatic changes apparently happened around 1925, when the painting's then-owner, Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, had it cleaned. In an effort to make the painting brighter, Foster says someone apparently stripped off some layers of dark glaze.
Ms. FOSTER: By meddling with that, by making some of the darks lighter than they should be, it's thrown the whole picture out of balance so that certain things are more important than they should be. Things that should have been in the background have moved to the foreground and changed the focus of the picture.
ROSE: Fortunately, the curators in Philadelphia found a photograph of the painting taken in 1917, before the overzealous cleaning.
Mr. MARK TUCKER (Vice Chairman of Conservation, Philadelphia Museum of Art): It was absolutely vital. That photograph gave us the information we needed to put things back reliably - because we'd like the painting to be able to speak for itself.
ROSE: Mark Tucker is vice chair of conservation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He says even in that black-and-white photo, you can see the difference. Tucker says it's important to see "The Gross Clinic" through the eyes of 19th century audiences, who had a taste for more restrained colors and darker paintings.
Mr. TUCKER: What we're requiring of viewers is that they understand what was misunderstood in the early 20th century - that they understand that Eakins, it was his wish that the painting would have areas that are obscure and that engage the imagination, weren't absolutely explicit.
ROSE: It took Tucker and his team of conservationists 10 months to restore "The Gross Clinic." They almost didn't get the chance. Four years ago, Thomas Jefferson University nearly shipped the painting off to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton's unfinished project in Arkansas. But two Philadelphia museums raised $68 million to keep it here.
And rightly so, says Philadelphia Museum of Art Director Timothy Rub.
Mr. TIMOTHY RUB (Director, Philadelphia Museum of Art): There's a great deal of hometown pride. People love Eakins. They understand and fully appreciate the importance of this picture, both in terms of Eakins' career but more importantly, also in terms of Philadelphia's own history.
ROSE: Times have changed since a squeamish jury at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia rejected "The Gross Clinic" for being too gory. But curator Kathleen Foster says the painting still has the power to surprise.
Ms. FOSTER: It's now very famous. It's in all the art history books. And also, we are in the middle of a culture that's more inured to bloody images. I still think it's a very upsetting picture. It's a very violent painting. And so, in a way, we'd like to recover that shock of seeing the painting for the first time.
ROSE: "The Gross Clinic" went on display yesterday just nine blocks from where it was painted, in the Philadelphia row house where Thomas Eakins lived most of his life.
For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.
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