Now the enormous painting has returned to the Art Museum, where officials have decided to do something more permanently special: They have completely rethought the climactic great gallery at the end of the museum's American wing.
The new installation was recently deemed complete with the return of Howard Roberts' marble sculpture Le Premiere Pose (1873-76), after undergoing cleaning by the conservation department.
For the first time, The Gross Clinic is seen in the context of the museum's permanent collection, and Eakins is surrounded by his artistic colleagues.
"It's rich, it's spectacular," said Kathleen A. Foster, the museum's curator of American art and mastermind of the reinstallation. "People walk in and say, 'Oh my God! Have I ever been in this room before?' "
On the wall opposite The Gross Clinic is Eakins' mammoth The Agnew Clinic, painted 14 years after Gross. (It is on long-term loan from the University of Pennsylvania.)
The effect of the two signature works in face-off is electric, and the story teased from them by this proximity speaks to changes in medicine, changes in aesthetics, and changes in Eakins' reputation and in American taste.
And for the first time, a visitor can see these paintings as they most likely were seen by Eakins' contemporaries - against a wall painted dark rose, in a room where paintings are stacked salon-style along one wall, many in elaborate frames.
Mary Cassatt, William Trost Richards, John Singer Sargent, Frank Furness, James McNeill Whistler, Celia Beaux, Louis Comfort Tiffany, John La Farge, Henry Ossawa Tanner are all here.
La Farge's large, luminous stained-glass window, Spring, has been moved from its cramped spot at the end of the American wing's long axis and now sits above the doorway to the reinstalled gallery, about 15 feet off the floor - probably the way it was intended to be seen.
Numerous small glass vessels by Tiffany occupy the spot formerly commanded by La Farge's winged dryad.
One of the hidden stories threaded through all these works is their associations with the great expositions that dominated the decades around the turn of the 20th century.
The Gross Clinic was undertaken by Eakins to highlight the intellectual rigor of medical practice in his native city, and he intended to display his own mastery of French realism by exhibiting this new painting in the great Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park in 1876.
But the Centennial art jury recoiled at Eakins' frank, even brutal depiction of a bloody Dr. Samuel D. Gross in midsurgery on a patient's leg in a crowded operating theater. The painting was rejected for inclusion in the art gallery and was displayed in the centennial's medical building instead.
Agnew, painted on commission for Penn, depicts an equally disturbing operation: a mastectomy. But Eakins carefully chose a point in the operation when blood has been stanched. Dr. David Hayes Agnew, dressed in a white medical coat (itself a reflection of advanced thinking about sanitation - Gross wore street clothes), is seen speaking to students. The area of the operation excludes all but medical personal.
Eakins sent Agnew and Gross to Chicago's Columbian Exposition in 1893. Not only were they accepted (along with eight other Eakins paintings), they won medals and made Eakins' reputation as an American master.
From the Paris Salons, which drew a million visitors annually and where the museum acquired Tanner's The Annunciation, now hanging near Dr. Gross, to the Paris Exposition Universelle (1900), where museum directors scooped up Tiffany glass, to the Columbian Exposition of 1893, the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904, the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, art, culture, commerce, and consumerism became globally intertwined.
Virtually every artist in the reinstalled gallery sought exhibition in these great world events, as well as in the massive domestic annual art fairs - which mimicked the Paris Salons - such as those once held at the Pennsylvania Academy.
This intertwining is underscored in the reinstallation. Whistler's Purple and Rose presents images of Chinese embroidery, porcelain, and Dutch Delft; a Furness desk echoes Moroccan architectural motifs; and Cassatt, Eakins, and others display their French concerns and techniques.
"These people all knew each other," said Foster. "They were friends and competitors. We wanted to remind people that there was this cultural web."