The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins is considered one of the best images produced in the US during the 19th century. A lot of that estimation is based upon the foundation in which Eakins constructed the picture.
Thomas Eakins painted this picture as a portrait of a distinguished American surgeon, Samuel D. Gross, who pioneered conservative surgery; that is, invasive surgery as opposed to amputation, for example. Gross was somewhat of a Renaissance man with knowledge in many areas including history. For a more detailed look at Dr. Gross, click here.
Eakins had many other interests besides the plastic arts. I can very well understand his interest in these other areas. Before attending the Herberger School of Fine Art, I studied math and science including anatomy and physiology, embryology, genetics, as well as physical anthropology. Although, we mainly used “plucks” and isolated parts for dissection, the resemblance to Eakin’s image was less theatrical and more clinical in a modern sense.
The most notable aspect of The Gross Clinic comes through the very structure of the design. Having studied with Jean-Léon Gérôme and Léon Bonnat in France, Eakins took a trip to Spain where he saw the works of Diego Velázquez and Jusepe de Ribera. Needless to say, his artistic education included all the benefits of classical training. This painting shows the exacting design of a sophisticated work from the late Renaissance or Baroque.
In the above drawing by da Vinci notice the arrangement of the pyramidal shape the forms present. He has taken an awkward position of the Virgin and St. Anne–she partially sits upon St. Anne’s lap–and made a stable composition while maintaining an emphasis of the Christ child by situating him in the line between an infant St. John and the two women. Mary and St. John look at Christ in a direct line, that if the Christ figure were absent, the two would be staring directly at each other. He actually forms the second pyramid since St. Anne points upward toward heaven between the heads of the two children. Besides Mary holding Christ with both hands and moving him forward to bless St. John, this second pyramid places emphasis on the relationship between Christ and St. John while helping to balance the composition. I could go on. The Renaissance through the present day is replete with the same sort of strategy for pictorial compositions.
Below we see a picture by Raphael of the Madonna in an obvious pyramidal form. In addition to the pyramid, Raphael uses a sweep of the Madonna’s arm along with the posture of Christ to emphasize her special relationship with her son. The other arm completes an encirclement. Together with these things, and placement of the child directly below the head of the Madonna provides a stable and strong composition. Notice how the two children are connected with the cross which points to the face of Mary. Also, she looks not at Christ but at St. John.
What does this have to do with The Gross Clinic? We have a similar pyramidal form in the appearance of Dr. Gross?
The head of Dr. Gross is obviously the top of this pyramid, with the shrieking woman forming one side and the ascending heads of the assistants forming the other. Here, Eakins uses the contrast between light and dark to emphasize the Doctor, his bloody hand, and the incision. Along with the light, the pyramid of assistants points to the surgery with their various instruments in their outstretched arms and hands. The Doctor himself, with the downward thrust of his arm, further brings focus to the wound.
Why is the Doctor’s scalpel holding hand such a strong point of visual interest and so shocking to many in the 19th century? For one thing, his hand is as highlighted as the physician’s head and a stark contrast with the darkness of his coat. It is also part of the larger pyramid and on the same level as the shrieking woman. The brilliant red, shiny color of the blood is only matched by the strip of red on the patient’s leg. In fact, these two places are the only bright colors in the whole, very large painting.
To further stabilize the picture, Eakins places horizontal lines flowing from the instrument table in the front and continuing in the gallery behind. In comparing this work to Renaissance images, many pictures utilized horizontals for stability and aerial perspective, although mainly for exterior views. With The Gross Clinic, Eakins has a sort of aerial perspective in that he gradually plunges the gallery into further and further darkness.
As for the shrieking woman, many art historians and critics point out that the woman is too small and, therefore, out of perspective. However, distortions many times are necessary to support the overall construction of a work. Da Vinci tilted the table out of perspective in the Last Supper, for example. The Grand Odalisque by Ingres is said to have one too many vertebrae. Not only this, we know that Eakins many times began with detailed perspective drawings and knew full well if a form was out of conformance. He did this deliberately to preserve the structure of the composition and put proper emphasis on this figure.
The only other figure made note of in The Gross Clinic exists in the gallery to our left side of the picture. Not only does he represent the listening, note-taking students but he balances the pale red mass of the tunnel on the other side. By using this device, as well as by placing him on the same side of the canvas as Doctor Gross, we easily know that this is a teaching and learning experience.
The Gross Clinic stands out as a great picture not only because of the construction of the painting but also because of the intricate details of the placement of forms, light, and color. Only a very refined painter can produce such a dramatic and emphatic artistic statement.
Please note that the featured image, the image on the front webpage, is a compositional study for The Gross Clinic.