Restoration of Eakins' "Gross Clinic" deemed a successful operation

Lighting designer Andrew Slavinskas (right) tells engineer John Locastro where to move the light on "The Gross Clinic," which will go on exhibition Saturday at the Art Museum's Perelman Building.
Lighting designer Andrew Slavinskas (right) tells engineer John Locastro where to move the light on "The Gross Clinic," which will go on exhibition Saturday at the Art Museum's Perelman Building.
Posted: July 20, 2010

As a young conservator, fresh from graduate school, Mark S. Tucker found himself facing a humbling task.

In 1980, he joined the conservation department of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and was thrown into preparations for the large retrospective of Thomas Eakins' work the museum would be mounting in 1982.

That's when he first encountered Eakins' 1875 masterpiece, The Gross Clinic, owned at the time by Jefferson Medical College.

"I did a very, very minor treatment on it," Tucker said the other day. "It had surface grime on it and I removed that. So I had my nose up close to the painting at a very early point."

Even then, he sensed that a more extensive treatment might someday be warranted. That day has come.

"An Eakins Masterpiece Restored: Seeing 'The Gross Clinic' Anew," an exhibition featuring the just-restored painting, opens at the Art Museum's Perelman Building Saturday for a run through Jan. 9.

The Gross Clinic, now owned jointly by the Art Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, has received the most extensive and informed restoration in its history, an astonishing effort led by Tucker, now 55, the museum's vice chair of conservation and its senior painting conservator.

The restoration was made possible by a massive public effort in 2006, led by the academy and the Art Museum, to raise $68 million and buy the work when Jefferson announced its intent to sell it to a pair of out-of-town museums.

Successful acquisition paved the way for an intimately informed restoration. Working with academy conservator Aella Diamantopoulos and museum conservators Teresa Lignelli and Allen Kosanovich, plus curators from both institutions, Tucker applied his 30 years of up-close experience with a huge range of Eakins canvases to produce not a "new" Gross Clinic, but an old one; not a Gross Clinic that demands compliance with 21st-century taste, but one that seeks kinship with what Eakins himself saw when he stepped away from the canvas 135 years ago and decided he was done.

Julie Berkowitz, former university art historian at Thomas Jefferson University, said she was "dazzled by the conservation" work done by Tucker and his team.

When she walked into the painting conservation lab on the Perelman Building's third floor recently, Tucker asked her what she thought.

"I said, 'clarity,' " she recalled. "I was thrilled by the new clarity of the painting, as though a veil had been lifted from the surface."

It has taken decades to accumulate the experience and information to bring off the feat, and no one has had more experience with Eakins than Tucker.

After that initial minor cleaning for the 1982 show, he periodically checked in on The Gross Clinic while it was still at Jefferson. He has done restorations of Eakins' The Pair-Oared Shell, Mending the Net, The Agnew Clinic, and many others. In 1999, along with conservator Mica Gutman, he undertook an exhaustive study of Eakins' oil paintings, searching for clues and evidence of his methods and techniques, all with an eye toward understanding the effects of time on these canvases.

"You can't understand Eakins until you understand his technique, and how the years have taken a toll on what the technique accomplished," said Tucker. "We thought, 'Well, let's see if we can accumulate some tools, let's see if we can accumulate a way of looking at these pictures, and understanding this technique, that explains why they look the way they look today.'

"And so to do that we went back and we looked at 19th- century painting technique but we also looked at the standards critics were applying then - this interest in a particular kind of low-toned painting, and particularly painting of very subdued and restrained color that there was great appreciation for in Paris in the 1860s when Eakins was training there."

It may be a relatively simple matter to see that something is wrong with a painting. But how exactly is it wrong? And how can the damage be repaired? And what, in fact, has been damaged?

The Gross Clinic had suffered largely from aggressive attempts to clean it, most harmfully in the 1920s. Restorers sought to "brighten" the somber canvas and in so doing removed Eakins' deepest tones, exposing reddish underpainting and removing faces and figures, including much of the artist's own self-portrait.

What remained - the painting the museum and academy purchased in 2006 after Jefferson announced its intention to sell it - was a monumental portrait of famed Jefferson surgeon Samuel Gross, bloody scalpel in hand, an anesthetized patient undergoing surgery, other doctors assisting, and a female figure looking away from the gruesome scene in horror.

What had been cleaned away was the context for this tableau - the artistic context of tonal values, volume and space, and the physical context of the operating amphitheater.

A similar situation had presented itself to Tucker 30 years ago when he worked to restore The Pair-Oared Shell (1872).

"When I worked on The Pair-Oared Shell, I realized there were residues of a toning material of some kind all over the surface of the picture, but they were very broken up and very scattered and I just said, 'There's just no way, with the information I have as of 1982, of understanding what this all means, but someday, someday I'll work on this,' " he recalled.

He did a minimal treatment for the exhibition at the time and left it at that.

"But I knew that restoration wasn't doing all it could or should, and I lived with that idea. And every time I passed by the picture [in the museum] I thought about it harder," he said.

When the museum's 2001 Eakins retrospective loomed, Tucker got his chance. By that point, having intensively studied so many Eakins canvases, he realized that enough of the original glaze remained with The Pair-Oared Shell that a full treatment could be attempted. He also had a firm understanding of how Eakins utilized thin layers of glaze to achieve pictorial unity.

"I did have the experience: Having restored the painting in the 1980s, I saw my restoration taken off, and I saw another conservator restore it," he said. "That was done by Terry Lignelli, one of our conservators here for a long time, and Terry did an amazingly beautiful job on it. . . . She applied all the findings that we were coming up with, and indeed we applied those findings throughout the treatments that we worked on for that show in 2000."

The Gross Clinic has received the same attention. Its dark glazes have been knitted back together, as Tucker describes it, allowing forms and details to emerge that had been virtually obliterated. Eakins, on the right of the canvas, is no longer a shadow but an intense observer with furrowed brow; a student with a crossed leg has emerged from virtually nothing; a deep tunnel behind Gross has had its darkness returned, allowing two figures at its entrance - one of them Gross' son - to emerge as characters in the surgical drama.

And the figure of Gross has gained a fullness in space, a solidity that had all but collapsed over the decades of cleanings.

"I think we got back as much as the picture could give us, applying the information we have," said Tucker. "I think we did as careful a job as you could have done, and we were just all pleased with how reliable the result is. If you were to look at our documentation, if you were to do a close reading of the surface of the painting, if you were to look at many, many other Eakins paintings, this now fits.

"It reconciles all these different types of information - technical information, visual information, historical information. It seems to bring all of that together."


Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com.

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