Heroic Doctors: Thomas Eakins and the Art of Dissection

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hi i'm wendy katz professor of art history at Wake Forest University and a millon fellow at Renauld the house Thomas Eakins is one of the great American realists and they're an older house collection yet his portraits like this one of Asbury rightly a Pennsylvania lumber manufacturer were rejected by their sitters nor did Aikens peers elected as a member of the National Academy of Design until 1902 despite his thirty years of painting and teaching the problem was that Aikens believed the artist must paint like the surgeon operates he must clinically dissect whoever he regards even if doing so violates conventions in our time when doctors and nurses risk their lives to treat illness it's worth looking at how our concept of medical heroism was created in part by artists like Aikens Aikens believed in the importance of anatomy and dissection for artists as much as doctors he taught Anatomy at Jefferson Medical College in his hometown of Philadelphia just as he taught art at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art and when the World's Fair of 1876 came to Philadelphia he painted on his own dime a portrait of the surgeon dr. Samuel gross in the midst of an operation this painting was rejected by the Arts Board as too gruesome a reaction Aikens predicts within the painting itself by including a woman next to dr. gross who can't bear to look at the operation the gruesome quality comes not just from the visible wound in the patient's thigh but the spotlight on dr. grosses hand and scalpel coated in blood the tray of gleaming instruments that bars our entry into the operating theatre only reinforces what Aikens admired about surgeons they commit violence in order to give life because of this nature of their job cutting into bodies surgeons had always been equated with butchers that's why Rembrandt in his portrait of a surgeon showed him detecting a corpse rather than a living body his hands stay clean when Aikens studied at the occult of Bose Arts in Paris he continued taking anatomy classes and he knew not only about Rembrandt but about contemporary pictures of French surgeons like this one which still shows the doctor dissecting the touch of red on doctor Ville Poe's coat is his Legion of Honor ribbon you can be a surgeon this painting says and still be an entirely respectable member of society Eakins however saw the surgeons clinical objectivity his ability to cruelly cut into living bodies as the hallmark of the modern artist he accordingly included himself among the experts of the surgery he is attentively taking notes and he holds the pen in his hand just as dr. gross holds the scalpel his gaze is just as unflinching as the gaze of the surgeons around the patient Aikens believed the artist must study from the lie of nude model he insisted his male and female students dissect cadavers of both sexes he expected the artist to be as detached and professional as doctors or nurses their gaze at the human body must be aesthetic and scientific not sexual if art was ever to move past what he called smiling smirking goddesses amid wax flowers and purling streams and become truthful instead this rejection of traditional idealized nudes and prettified nature combined with his insistence on his students direct contact with naked bodies led to a series of scandals at his art school and he was forced to resign in a letter he wrote to his boss he tried to explain if I should be in a railroad accident he wrote and perceive a lady bleeding most dangerously from the lower extremity then and there I should try to find the artery and compress it tie it and if some evil person would run busily about and whisper that I had lifted up a lady's clothes in a public place such complaints would properly be ignored Aikens believed that the artist must penetrate into his subject his sitters and such penetration requires the artist like the doctor to treat bodies as objects in these portraits of two of his students this quality of detachment evokes a sense of the woman's suffering a sensitivity or psychological complexity that seems to be caused by their lack of fit in the world they inhabit they are elegantly costumed surrounded by artistic furniture and trappings but not at ease but when Aikens turned his dissecting gaze on men particularly successful businessmen likely who are not part of his artistic circle the effect was colder rather than suggesting access to Lee's in her life Dickens clinical approach makes Lee appear as stiff as his starched collar lacking psychological depth when Lee returned the painting Takens along with the agreed payment of $200 he added a note that he didn't consider it a good likeness though my daughter liked it in a general way this undoubtedly Akins who dogged Lee pursued the particular woundedness the specific hurt or it may be the beauty and strength of each sitter perhaps that's why I like the gash on the thigh of dr. grosses patient Deakins highlighted the scar on Lee's hand Aikens very successful Pierre John Singer Sargent was famous for his ability to show that confident polished even aggressive surfaces of American aristocrats in a way that glamorized them their character was perfectly congruent with their world there was no need for surgery to show it lay underneath Aikens however only became really popular in the 1930s with critics who rejected Gilded Age materialism and artists like Sargent as empty suits these critics valued as modern Aikens fight against social convention his belief that women should study art and the body in the same way men did so it was no accident that Aikens found his heroic model for the professional artist who goes below material surfaces in modern doctors and nurses

Our modern concept of medical heroism was built up in part by American realist Thomas Eakins. Throughout his career, he sought out and portrayed the particular tenderness of his sitters and scenes. It’s in this way, like the doctors and nurses he admired, Eakins went below the surface to create paintings he felt were a little more truthful.

Answer the page from this episode’s Call-a-Curator and go inside Eakins and the art of dissection with Professor of Art History and Reynolda Mellon Fellow Wendy Katz.

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