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The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: Progress: The Meaning of the Machine
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: Progress
Text 1. Memory and Machines
Text 2. Brooklyn Bridge
Text 3. Human Machines
Text 4. Christine Frederick
Text 5. Thomas Eakins
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Text 6. Thomas Edison
Text 7. Wealth and Weightlessness
Text 8. Southern Statis
Text 9. The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago

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Reading Guide
The Gross Clinic
The Gross Clinic
Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic, oil on canvas, 1875 Discussing Art

In the selection from Taylor's Scientific Management excerpted above we get a sense of the period's growing infatuation with the professional, the possessor of specialized knowledge who can organize and conduct activities to their utmost effectiveness. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Americans began to professionalize many fields of endeavor. Between 1870 and 1890, accountants, architects, businessmen, dentists, economists, historians, lawyers, librarians, pharmacists, political scientists, schoolteachers, and veterinarians, among others, defined themselves as professional by organizing associations, establishing specialized schools, or implementing certifying exams. Even leisure pursuits were raised to a professional level: the first professional baseball club, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, was organized in 1869.

Perhaps the most powerful artistic expression of the professional—in this case, the scientist-as-hero—is Thomas Eakins's The Gross Clinic. Eakins was born in Philadelphia in 1844. Between 1866 and 1870 he studied art in Europe. In 1876 he joined the faculty of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a position he lost in 1886 when, trying to make an anatomical point, he yanked the loincloth off an otherwise nude male model before a mixed class of art students. Even so, anatomy was not his real subject. American life was, and to it he brought a realistic, empirical yet passionate vision. The Gross Clinic shows Dr. Samuel Gross, the most renowned surgeon at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, removing dead bone from the thigh of a young man, while assistants lean into their work, students take notes, and a horror-stricken woman turns away. Even though this is serious surgery, everyone involved is wearing street clothes. It would be awhile yet before antiseptic practice brought surgical scrubs to the operating theatre. Eakins had hoped to show the painting in the art section of the 1876 Exposition, but the selection committee rejected it. It ended up as a medical painting in the U.S. Army Post Hospital Building, illustrating the treatment of Civil War injuries. In 1875 the painting was both hailed as a masterpiece and denounced as morbid exhibitionism. 1 page.

Discussion questions
  1. How through posing, lighting, facial expression, and his relationship to other figures does Eakins present Dr. Gross?
  2. Does Eakins think Dr. Gross is heroic? What sort of heroism does he represent?
  3. What role does the woman play in the painting?
  4. How might The Gross Clinic resonate with the Civil War memory of the time?
  5. What values does The Gross Clinic display?
  6. What is Eakins's attitude toward progress?
  7. What does the placement of The Gross Clinic in a medical exhibition suggest about the way Eakins's work was regarded?

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Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did Americans of this period define progress?
  •  What did progress mean to them?

Thomas Eakins (American, 1844-1916), The Gross Clinic, 1875. Oil on canvas, 96 x 78 in. (243.8 x 198.1 cm). Jefferson Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia. Permission pending.

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Memory | Progress | People | Power | Empire

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