Legend has it that Dr. Samuel Gross exploded with exasperation during one of the many, long and tedious sessions posing for the painter Thomas Eakins.
“Eakins,” Gross is reputed to have exclaimed, “I wish you were dead.”
Ironically, Eakins’ portrait of Gross, first exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, bestowed lasting immortality on the aggravated Philadelphia doctor. “The Gross Clinic” shocked Gilded Age gallery visitors with its image of the surgeon lecturing to students while operating on a boy’s thigh. But the painting is now held in almost universal esteem by major art critics and historians. “The Gross Clinic,” in the opinion of Michael Kimmelman, the chief art critic of The New York Times is “hands down, the finest 19th century American painting.”
Even immortality has its price, however, which in the case of “The Gross Clinic” is $68 million.
“The Gross Clinic”, following its less than auspicious debut, was purchased by the alumni of Thomas Jefferson University in 1878 for the princely sum of $200 and donated to the school in honor of Dr. Gross. It now appears in a university gallery, anchoring a display of portraits of other eminent Victorian faculty by Eakins. Several attempts to purchase “The Gross Clinic” in recent decades were rejected out of hand. And then Wal-Mart came to town.
In November 2006, Thomas Jefferson University agreed to sell “The Gross Clinic” to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Crystal Bridge Museum of American Art currently being built in Bentonville, Arkansas.
At least that is what public relations releases say.
In reality, the deal is between Thomas Jefferson University and Alice Walton, one of the heirs of the Wal-Mart fortune under the guise of the Walton Family Foundation. Philadelphia cultural institutions were given 45 days, until December 26, to match the $68 million offer. If they fail – as they may well do – then “The Gross Clinic” will be lost to the City of Brotherly Love.
Given the current state of global malaise, the sale of “The Gross Clinic” may not seem a major tragedy. If the danger of global warming is as bad as experts are predicting then Dr. Gross will likely stay safe and dry longer in Arkansas than in Philadelphia.
There is nothing much here to worry about. Right? Wrong.
The Wal-Mart shopping expedition raises issues of significance that go far deeper than a question of art provenance.
The attempt to purchase “The Gross Clinic” in a secret deal between the Walton Family Foundation and top administrators of Thomas Jefferson University challenges the concept of an “ownership society.” This principle is extolled as a bedrock value of American society. Normally, ownership is a private, personal matter. You buy, barter, inherit or receive as gift something of value and you, as proud owner, then decide how that something is used.
With an institution like a university, things get more complicated. Since the Thomas Jefferson alumni donated “The Gross Clinic” to their university, the painting is owned by the Jefferson University community, not just the Board of Trustees, but the faculty, alumni and students as well. Yet none of these groups were allowed a role in the transaction or even knowledge that it was being considered.
By extension, a convincing case can be made that this community bond should be extended to the city that has been the site of Thomas Jefferson University since its founding as Jefferson Medical College in 1824. If Philadelphia derives economic or health advantages from having a prestigious institution like Jefferson situated in the city, the converse is true. Jefferson benefits greatly from being in a city that has played a pioneering role in health care since before the Revolution and has always supported its medical institutions.
“The Gross Clinic” deal, furthermore, is not an isolated act. A similar scenario involving the Walton Family Foundation, an iconic work of American art and a clandestine bargain with administrators of a major cultural institution took place only a short time before in New York City.
In May 2005, the New York Public Library sold its iconic Hudson River School landscape, “Kindred Spirits” to the deep-pocketed Waltons in silent auction. The 1849 painting, showing two of the founding spirits of American culture, Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant, surveying the forested mountains of the Catskills, is as evocative for the culture of New York as the scientific ambiance of “The Gross Clinic” is for Philadelphia.
Indeed, the more that the two masterpieces are compared and the methods being used to spirit them away to a new, alien institution are investigated, the extent of the threat to a region’s cultural heritage is magnified.
“Kindred Spirits” was painted by Asher Durand to honor Thomas Cole, the painter who virtually created landscape art in the United States, and his friend William Cullen Bryant, the first of the great 19th century American poets. Cole died, tragically young, in 1848, giving this work a foundation of moral sentiment in addition to it brilliant artistic effect. Bryant’s daughter gave the masterpiece to the New York Public Library in 1904, where it has had an honored place for over a century.
The details of the “silent auction” held at Sotheby’s were never made public. The price of “Kindred Spirits” was reportedly $35 million, making it the highest ever for a painting by a 19th century American artist – until of course the “The Gross Clinic” deal a year later. The cost of immortality at least is keeping up with inflation.
The value of masterpieces like “Kindred Spirits” of course cannot be reckoned in dollars and cents. Writing in the New York Sun, Francis Morrone, an authority on American art and architecture, declared that the New York Public Library’s “sale of “Kindred Spirits” is, quite frankly, New York’s most egregious act of self-desecration since the demolition of Pennsylvania Station.”
Perhaps betrayal would be more accurate.
Given the fact that the New York Public Library, with an endowment of $400 million, is not exactly hurting for cash, the sale of “Kindred Spirits” in a way that denied other New York institutions a reasonable chance to broker a deal to keep it in New York City is very questionable. When the psychic scars of 9/11 are added to the equation, the loss of heritage to a city that has suffered so much and coped so nobly with tragedy is deeply offensive.
So, the question is, who really owns “Kindred Spirits?” Who owns “The Gross Clinic?” Is it the Board of Trustees of these respective institutions or the entire institutional communities and the cities that supports them?
And then the role of the National Gallery of Art in these unseemly transactions needs to be examined.
The “sale” of “Kindred Spirits” to the National Gallery of Art was hailed as a way to present the painting to a vastly wider public than were able to view it at the New York Public Library. The same kind of rhetoric is being used to justify the backroom bargaining for “The Gross Clinic.”
Nobody has asked if the Walton Family Foundation will be reaping hefty tax write-offs by displaying these paintings at the National Gallery before whisking them off to Arkansas. Samuel Mellon tried and failed to use a similar tactic when he presented his collection of Old Masters to the National Gallery during the 1930’s. That of course was during the bad old days of the New Deal when public accounting standards were vastly different.
Museums are designed – and public museums are mandated – to act as the stewards of the nation’s or a city’s heritage. The New York Public Library failed dismally in this respect, a failure only eclipsed by the National Gallery, which quite frankly is serving as the bagman for the theft of public art treasures from New York City and Philadelphia.
Philadelphia cultural, civic and medical institutions are fighting back in a brave effort to keep “The Gross Clinic” in its long time home. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the James A. Michener Art Museum in nearby Doylestown, PA, have launched a fund-raising campaign. And the city government is moving to block the sale by placing the painting under the protection of the city’s historic preservation code. This procedure saved the mosaic “Dream Garden,” created by Maxfield Parrish and Louis Comfort Tiffany, from being sold and removed from Philadelphia in 1998.
Significantly, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia declared its support for the campaign. Founded in 1787, the College of Physicians is an example of a long-standing institution that has been working for the public good, preserving both the health of the city’s people and the historical record of its medical profession. The statement of the College of Physicians, quoted by the noted writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Stephan Salisbury, is a classic illustration of the principle of cultural stewardship:
“The subject of the painting and the painter were both world-famous Philadelphians. This American painting, considered one of the greatest of the 19th century, is by a Philadelphia artist, of a Philadelphia surgeon operating on a Philadelphia patient, in a Philadelphia hospital.”
This statement cogently shows the fallacy of removing certain works of art from their historic setting and cultural surroundings to another location. Everyone would like to have a statue by Michelangelo in the collection of their local museum. But if, God forbid, Michelangelo’s “David” were sold for X millions of Euros and transported to a different city or county, it would become just another statue. In Florence, the “David” is a symbol of that city’s history and spirit. And the same is true of “The Gross Clinic” for Philadelphia and, sadly, “Kindred Spirits” for New York.
Nobody should deny the Walton Family Foundation the opportunity to build a museum showcasing American art in America’s heartland. Nor should anyone wish to have all of Thomas Eakins’ paintings held in Philadelphia – or all the Hudson River School landscapes in New York City. That is a disservice to the wider public, as well as to the artists’ reputation.
There are quite a few paintings by Eakins in private hands, as was revealed by the great joint exhibition staged by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2001-2002. By making bids for these works for the Crystal Bridge Museum, the Waltons would be adding to the publicly held heritage of America rather than wreaking cultural havoc.
Building a museum collection is an organic process, achieved over time and reflecting the regional roots and social conditions of the institution. One has only to survey the works of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for instance, to see how a first-rate collection was amassed, often in difficult circumstances. During the cash-strapped 1930’s, the renowned head of the Philadelphia Museum, Fiske Kimball, emphasized purchases of regional art, including works by Eakins, and works of modern art. Today, these world class galleries are the anchor for the museum’s collection with other art genres gradually strengthened through selected purchase and bequests.
The aim of Alice Walton and the Walton Family Foundation with the Crystal Bridge Museum should be in this direction, preserving and expanding the cultural heritage of Arkansas and the American nation at large. Instead, the heedless creation of this museum is shaping-up as an act of vandalism by check book.
The loss of “Kindred Spirits” to New York City and the ominous cloud over Philadelphia with the imminent departure of “The Gross Clinic” is a deeply disturbing tale for our times. Instead of extending and nurturing American culture, the Walton Family Foundation’s shopping spree is undermining the foundation of the nation’s heritage and making a fiction of the idea of “ownership” society. For if a work of art bequeathed to an institution many years ago can be sold in secret conclave without giving the community of that institution a voice in the matter, what can be said to be publicly “owned” or held in trust? For that matter, what is to prevent a privately held work of art from being considered part of the public domain if the “powers that be” should deem it so? In short, if the price is right.
These are terrible questions, unthinkable even a few years ago. Yet America is sinking back into the age of the Robber Barons, the very time when Eakins painted “The Gross Clinic.” Eakins’ vision of heroic scientific endeavor was ignored, indeed spurned, at the Centennial Exposition of 1876, a High Victorian orgy of self-congratulation. The projected sale of this magisterial painting, along with “Kindred Spirits,” gives new meaning and contemporary relevance to the “almighty dollar” creed of the First Gilded Age, immortalized in the words of Cornelius Vanderbilt: “the public be damned.”
Readers wishing to support the campaign to keep “The Gross Clinic” in Philadelphia should consult the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s website.