Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic – A suitable Case for Treatment?
A director of the National Gallery, Sir Philip Hendy, once joked that the (helpful) consequence of successive picture restorations was the eventual recovery of a perfectly preserved, pristine white under-painting. After several further generations of modernist stripping and purging, even the restorers have taken fright. Now – and perhaps feeling licensed by the indulgencies and frivolities of post-modernism – they are discovering the delights of “putting back” what their (sometimes very recent) predecessors should never have taken off. After a century of pictorial reductionism, the latest pioneering “recoverist” restoration at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Thomas Eakins’s painting The Gross Clinic, has been heavily trailed in the press. In celebrating their own attempts to reconstitute what had been wrongly discarded, today’s restorers seem little aware that they, too, are entering methodological quick-sands.
James Keul writes:
The Thomas Eakins picture The Gross Clinic is arguably the most important American painting of the 19th Century. In spite of – or perhaps because of – this exalted status it has had a difficult and complicated history. Aside from suffering the “theme park” indignity of being relegated to a mock-medical tent when first exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Expo in Philadelphia, and an initial rejection by contemporary critics, it has been humiliated further through its subjection to no fewer than five major restorations in its relatively short existence of 136 years.
The painting has been relined three times – one of which nearly caused it to tear in half. (Why should a modern canvas require relining even once, let alone three times?) It was dramatically altered in 1925 by the removal of dark glazes that Eakins had applied with the specific artistic intention of toning down areas that were meant to recede. As recently as 1961, an overall varnish was applied that has since darkened enough to be used as one of the justifications for the most recent restoration of the painting last year (- but see photograph and caption comments at top right). The days when museums could credibly refuse to admit that paintings were damaged by past restorations have passed and it has become increasingly common to see labels next to paintings admitting such unfortunate occurrences. At the Metropolitan Museum’s 2008 exhibition “The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, for example, numerous paintings were accompanied by specific acknowledgements of past restoration-induced injuries. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s decision to restore the Gross Clinic is another example of this new trend – but one, as will be seen, with a crucial difference.
It is almost inevitable that each new generation of restorers views itself as superior to its predecessors. Perhaps restorers today are more cautious than those of a half-century ago and it is encouraging to see that with the benefit of hindsight many earlier harmful practices have been abandoned. With new developments in x-radiographs, infrared reflectography, chromatography and other specialized equipment, restorers certainly have a lot more technical (if not artistic) information at their disposal, but the question remains: what does this mean for the art itself?
In the case of the 2010 restoration of the Gross Clinic, it meant that Mark Tucker, Senior Conservator of Paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with a team of restorers, including a Mellon Fellow in Conservation, felt sufficiently confident in this new technology to undertake the task of repainting large portions of Thomas Eakins’ masterpiece in an attempt to bring it back to the way Eakins had intended it to be seen. At best, however, this could only have been a partially realisable goal. Attempting to return a painting to its original condition is, on its own, an area of great debate. With age, paintings acquire patinas and, as with all objects, time takes its toll. What makes this restoration the more troubling is the fact that the latest restorers in the chain are not trying to bring it back to its (supposed) original condition, but rather to a specific condition that is represented in photographs from a period more than thirty years after the painting was completed and after the painting had already been lined with an ironed-on backing canvas – a procedure now widely acknowledged to risk adversely effecting a painting’s appearance.
Our concerns about the questionable nature of this enterprise have been compounded by the explanations that have been offered to us concerning its execution. Mr. Tucker informs us, for example, that, in order to maximize the accuracy of the placement of his own “in-painting”, tracings were made on clear Mylar film from an enlargement of a photograph of the painting taken in 1917. Some of these tracings were cut out, “producing something that looked like a stencil”, and were used to “place small temporary reference marks that were useful in attaining an appearance in the restored damages that is as faithful as possible to the early images of the painting”. [Emphasis added.] Inferring what an artist wanted his work to look like decades or even centuries after it was made is problematic enough, but attempting to recreate one particular historical state of the painting based on black and white photography is problematic to say the least.
In addition to the inherent problems presented by using photography for this purpose at all, because no colour reproductions of the painting exist prior to the 1925 restoration, determining even the proper colours becomes itself a major issue. When asked how the freshly added colours were determined, Mr. Tucker replied that their colour choices were:
“based on a determination of the pigments present in a preserved area of the original surface, on a direct visual match to the colour of the best preserved areas of the passageway, and on close consideration of the relationship between the colours present on the painting and the tones recorded in the 1917 photograph”.
This attempt itself raises concerns. Because pigments vary greatly depending on their source, how can one be sure that the pigments used by today’s restorers will be the same as those used by Eakins? Any artist who has bought raw umber from different manufacturers will immediately notice differences in colour “temperature” and value from one brand to another. If the latest restorers were to say that it does not matter since the colours used were matched to the adjacent colours that had survived on the painting, the question would arise: what, then, was the point of even “determining” the pigments that the artist had originally used?
There would also be a question concerning the reliability of the tones present in the period photograph that was chosen as a point of reference.The restorers have informed us that they also used a drawing made of the painting by Eakins himself as a source of reference. But, aside from questions concerning the level of its accuracy to the original painting, the fact remains that the drawing is a different work of art from the painting and whatever its accuracy might be (see comments right), it is clear that on close examination it differs greatly from the picture today in terms of pictorial/tonal values. To use some combination of the testimonies of a drawing that does not match the painting and a period (1917) photograph whose reliability cannot be assumed, in order to infer some compromise position on the artist’s original intent as a basis for present “in-painting” (- which is, properly speaking, re-painting) leaves a great deal of room for error and artistic interpretation on the part of the restorer, and possible historical falsifications.
On the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) website, under a heading ‘compensation for loss’, the recommended practice states that “If compensation is so extensive that it forms a substantial portion of the cultural property, then the compensation should be visually apparent to all viewers”. Though only a recommended practice, it is indicative of the importance of authenticity. This recommendation was not followed in the case of the Gross Clinic. The “in-painting” on the occasion of the last restoration was an attempt to recover an original condition that had been lost, and to match it perfectly (- that is to say, deceivingly) to the surviving surrounding passages. If a group of school children were to go to the Philadelphia Museum today and look at the Gross Clinic, they would not be able to tell where Eakins’ work ended and where Mr. Tucker’s began.
The video which accompanied the recent Eakins exhibition and which covers the history of the painting by examining the evidence left by its various restorations, states that this is the third painting by Thomas Eakins from their collection that has been “renewed” with repainting (- the other two being his Between Rounds and Mending the Nets). As a society, we must think about what we want to see when going to museums. Is it the image that is important, or is it the authenticity? For sure, the picture will have changed significantly since it was painted (more by restoration than by time), but attempting to bring back something that has been lost is simply not possible. While Thomas Eakins’ painting might look closer to the original now than it previously had, it is by no means an original picture today. Rather, it is a reconstruction of what today’s restorers take to have been its likely original condition, had so many bad things not been done to it by their predecessors. We trust that future visitors to the museum will be fully informed of the eventful “conservation history” of this painting.
James Keul is a painter and the executive director of ArtWatch International
Comments may be left at: email@example.com