What's prognosis for Jefferson's art trove?

The university could sell two more by Eakins, but nothing else.

Posted: March 29, 2007

"We're not a museum. We're not in the business of art education."

That's what Thomas Jefferson University president Robert L. Barchi said in November in explaining the university's decision to sell Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic after owning it for 129 years.

Jefferson may not be a museum, but commissioning and collecting art have long been central to its philosophy, and after decades of such endeavors, the school has thousands of pieces to show for it.

The collection's artistic capital took a big hit with the $68 million sale of The Gross Clinic, and Barchi says that the school intends to deaccession two other pieces in the multimillion-dollar collection: Its remaining Eakins works, Portrait of Benjamin H. Rand and Portrait of William S. Forbes.

As for the rest of the collection, Barchi said in a statement yesterday: "We do not intend to sell any of our artworks other than the Eakins paintings, even if approached. While the mission of Thomas Jefferson University as an academic health center does not include the acquisition or display of artworks, we will continue to honor our tradition of commissioning portraits of Jefferson's distinguished faculty and maintain our current artworks."

And there are plenty of them.

Hanging without fanfare above an administrator's desk in Alumni Hall is Crowd at the Cattleman, a bright nightclub scene of watercolor, gouache, crayon and pastel by Humbert L. Howard, an important African American artist who worked for the Works Progress Administration in the Franklin D. Roosevelt years.

That painting in the corner of a conference room of the Medical College building is a delicate oil of the surgeon Thomas D. Mütter from 1842 by English-born Thomas Sully, the prolific, widely admired portraitist.

Alexander Stirling Calder's nearly nine-foot bronze statue of surgeon Samuel D. Gross presides over the construction site of a new education building at 10th and Locust Streets.

A natural habitat

Jefferson, in fact, has hundreds of paintings and pieces of sculpture - mostly, though not exclusively, relating to Jefferson, the history of medicine, or both. It owns tall case clocks, furniture, decorative arts and rare books. Prints, drawings and photographs alone number about 20,000, says Jefferson archivist F. Michael Angelo. The school also owns woodcuts from the 16th century, photographs from the 19th, architectural renderings from the 20th, busts and early medical instruments. Most of the items were donated.

American medical institutions have become a natural habitat for art in recent decades; landscapes and sculpture are now frequently encountered among the examining rooms and medical stacks.

Art and music have a high - and growing - profile at the Cleveland Clinic, which is in the midst of selecting seven site-specific commissions for its new heart center. The Mayo Clinic offers daily tours of its collection, which includes a large Rodin study, Warhol silkscreens, a sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly, and works of glass artist Dale Chihuly.

'Just endless'

Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions owns about 10,000 pieces of art, antiques and other items - roughly 1,500 of those being paintings and sculpture. Among the more notable are two paintings by John Singer Sargent, a Cecilia Beaux, and a William Merritt Chase.

Jefferson thought enough of its art to retain, in 1988, a curator, Julie S. Berkowitz, whose 725-page book on the collection, Adorn the Halls, is just a sampling of what the university owns, she says.

"It's just endless," said Berkowitz, a former Philadelphia Museum of Art employee who oversaw conservation, lending, insurance and organization of the collection for 15 years. "It's not only in the [Eakins] gallery but also in the hallways, in lecture halls, in auditoriums."

Berkowitz even found important documents and works in closets and other crannies.

"One time I was looking in the library of the anatomy department and I found the collotype [an early photographic reproduction] of The Gross Clinic. This was signed by Eakins."

But the future of at least some of the art at Jefferson is uncertain. Berkowitz retired in 2003 and has not been replaced. The university says it has no valuation on its art collection, though a spokeswoman says it is insured.

And now president Barchi says that The Gross Clinic might not be the last Eakins to go, which could leave Jefferson's Eakins Gallery strangely lacking in anything by Eakins.

"We might seek to sell another painting," Barchi said recently. "We said at the time we decided to sell The Gross Clinic that we certainly would entertain any opportunity to sell the other two."

In art-world parlance, that's a "for sale" sign.

Either of the remaining two Eakins works would likely sell for a figure in the double-digit millions, Berkowitz said. The $68 million fetched by The Gross Clinic - now co-owned by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art - was the highest price ever paid for a pre-World War II American artwork. It will be used, Jefferson officials say, to establish a permanent fund for scholarships and endowed faculty positions.

Jefferson's Rand and Forbes portraits were still on display this week, along with a pale digital facsimile of The Gross Clinic stretched on a reproduction of the ornate gilt frame. The original is on view at the Academy of the Fine Arts through June 2008, installed in a gallery showing Eakins' influence on other artists.

(The other notable Eakins in Jefferson's Eakins Gallery is by Susan Macdowell Eakins, the artist's wife, and Jefferson does not own it. Portrait of a Soldier is on loan from the French Benevolent Society of Philadelphia.)

A Jefferson spokeswoman says the Eakins Gallery receives only about 500 visitors a year (with a spike in attendance after the sale of The Gross Clinic was announced). Access is not easy. A visitor must ask a guard to unlock the door, and during this week's visit by a reporter, Susan Eakins' painting and another gem in the collection, a second-century marble Athena, were seen in semidarkness, the staff unable to turn on lighting.

But the major part of the art experience at Jefferson is serendipitous. Walking up a staircase or out of an elevator, students and faculty are likely to encounter a row of portraits, which are everywhere and variable in quality. Though as artworks, portraits are necessarily bound to the mission of glorifying their subjects, these represent a remarkable lineage of artists associated with the enduring school of realism that started with Eakins at the Academy of the Fine Arts.

Among the realists or impressionists who are represented by portrait work at Jefferson and who studied or taught at the academy are, after Eakins, Chase, Daniel Garber, Walter Emerson Baum, Ben Solowey, Nelson Shanks, Bo Bartlett and Paul DuSold.

The portraits of doctors, nurses and administrators at Jefferson are the artistic evidence of a tradition, formalized in 1924, of having each year's graduating class honor its "most inspiring" professor.

Jefferson maintains an art committee that manages the collection. The body makes recommendations to trustees on whether to lend a painting, plans events centered on the art collection, considers offers of gifts, and decides where new artworks are displayed.

"Art was always a part of the institution," Berkowitz says.

More art was recently added to the life of Jefferson. In five workshops starting this month, 20 Jefferson students are exploring art and medicine at the Academy of the Fine Arts. The academy's new star tenant, The Gross Clinic, will be a focus of study.

The point, both institutions say, it to "launch a broader conversation about the role of art in medicine and clinical practice."

Art education, some might call it.


The Jefferson University Collection: Selected Works

PAINTINGS

Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Benjamin H. Rand

Thomas Eakins, Portrait of William S. Forbes

Thomas Sully, Portrait of Thomas D. Mütter

Dirk Stoop (attributed), Cavaliers in Battle (ca. 1650-75)

William Merritt Chase, Portrait of William W. Keen Jr.

Daniel Garber, Portrait of Virgil Holland Moon

Julian Russell Story, Portrait of George McClellan; Portrait of Alba B. Johnson

Walter Emerson Baum, four landscapes

Humbert L. Howard, Crowd at the Cattleman

Hugh Henry Breckenridge, Portrait of William Potter

Ben Solowey, Portrait of Fred Harbert

Nelson Shanks, Portrait of Thomas D. Duane; Portrait of Lewis W. Bluemle Jr.; Portrait of John Y. Templeton III; Portrait of Charles Fineberg

Bo Bartlett, Portrait of Joseph F. Majdan

Dean M. Larson, Portrait of Gregory C. Kane

Paul DuSold, Jefferson School of Nursing: Three

Nursing Uniforms

LITHOGRAPHS

Grant Wood, Family Doctor (in storage)

Man Ray, unknown title, 1960s (in storage)

Salvador Dalí, Playing Cards, 1970 (in storage)

Alfred Bendiner, The Common Cold (in storage)

Wolf Kahn, Untitled Landscape, 1969 (in storage)

SCULPTURE

Athena/Minerva, unknown artist, 2d century with 18th- or 19th-century additions (marble statue)

Scipione Tadolini, The Greek Slave (marble sculpture)

Alexander Stirling Calder, The Samuel D. Gross Monument (bronze sculpture)

RARE BOOKS

Hans Burgkmair the Elder, Title Page: Physicians in Discussion (woodcut from book), Augsburg, 1519

De Arte Gymnastica: Men Climbing Ropes, woodcut, unknown artist, Venice, 1573

The Birth of Antichrist, woodcut, unknown artist,

German, 1483. One of the earliest images of cesarean birth in medical art.


 

View a slide show of some of the art

at Jefferson at


Contact culture writer Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/peterdobrin.

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