Saturday, November 11, 2006

Art, For the City's Sake

Today's front page of the Inquirer bears news of yet another blow to the cultural patrimony of Philadelphia: Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic, widely felt to be in the first rank of American art, is leaving town.

In a sale arranged by Christie's, the city's Thomas Jefferson (Medical) University sold the painting for $68 million to a consortium of the National Gallery of Art and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas -- the under-construction space for the collection of the Wal-Mart dynasty.

As with most everything on these pages, there's an ecclesial tie: Eakins frequently took refuge on the grounds of the then newly-settled suburban campus of St Charles Borromeo Seminary, where many of its faculty sat for his portraits. A room in its "Lower Side" building was named for Eakins in the last century.

In the article, there's this observation about the painting and one of its city's long-standing drawbacks that drives many of its creative minds to distraction... or, simply, exodus:
[Eakins], who was born and raised in Philadelphia, believed The Gross Clinic portrayed the city's technical and cultural preeminence. But when he submitted it for inclusion in the art exhibition of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, the art jury rejected it, arguing that the bloody imagery would offend viewers.

Jefferson alumni, however, found the painting and its subject tremendously powerful. They purchased the canvas and bequeathed it to their alma mater.

The story of The Gross Clinic, then, is almost a metaphor for Philadelphia cultural history. The painting, like the painter, who was famously dismissed from the Pennsylvania Academy faculty for employing nude models in classes with female students, was rejected by a squeamish establishment. Yet The Gross Clinic's very existence and Eakins' enduring legacy are evidence that the city's often derided cultural environment is a breeding ground for great achievements - almost despite itself.

Kathleen Foster, curator of American art at the Art Museum, said: "To let this painting go, the city would be letting Eakins down all over again... . Are we going to do this again? Are we going to turn our backs on him once more?"

Sad to say, but it would almost be un-Philadelphian if we didn't.

Horrible, yes, but true.