Heroicism and Evolution in Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic Essay

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Heroicism and Evolution in Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic
Both Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic (1875) and The Agnew Clinic (1889) are realistic oil paintings which depict a medical doctor lecturing to students about surgery. The two paintings, through the use of color, lighting, and space, both portray the doctor heroically and give high regard to the field of medicine. However, the tone of the two portraits, along with the way Eakins decided to portray the scene, are inherently different. The Gross Clinic is darker and more chaotic, while The Agnew Clinic is lighter and calmer. These disparities in the two paintings highlight the shift in the era of medicine and the advancement of medical technology in the 14 year time period between the two paintings.
In both The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic, Eakins put the focal point of the painting on the presumed head doctor using space, shape, and color. In The Gross Clinic, one doctor stands slightly to the left of the centre, above the rest of the medical staff and in the forefront of the painting. Even though Eakins put all the medical staff on the same plane, this doctor is distinguished from the rest. While the other crouch down around the patient, he stands upright, an obvious sign of authority as he is physically towering above everyone else. The doctor’s head and wiry gray hair is illuminated from above by soft light, creating a halo effect around the doctor’s head. This gives the doctor an almost angelic, heroic feel, but the angles on his face still preserve his masculinity. The bodies of the medical staff as a whole form a pyramid, with the main doctor’s head as the pinnacle. Not only is the stability and professionalism of the medical staff remarked on here, but the main doctor is also thus identified as a ‘leader’, the ‘top’ of the group. In addition to the pyramid, diagonals are also formed that point towards the doctor’s head. When the head of the secretary on the left of the painting and the rightmost surgeon’s bent back are joined, a diagonal is formed with the doctor’s head and the patient in the centre. However, as the doctor’s head is higher than the patient’s body, the doctor still remains the focal point. Note that though the secretary is placed higher than the doctor, he is nevertheless mush smaller in proportion and in the background, so he thus does not eclipse the doctor. In addition, while all the other medical staff have their gaze fixed on the patient, the main doctor looks away and to the left, presumably as he lectures students. This difference in direction of gaze distinguishes him from the other medical staff. Lastly, the fact that the painting is vertical means that the focus can be put on the doctor, and not the whole medical team.
In The Agnew Clinic, the main doctor is distinguished by his physical isolation from the rest of the medical staff in the oval. By the use of negative space within the oval, the doctor is set apart from the rest and brought into focus. If Eakins had clumped him together with the rest of the medical staff, he would have been undistinguished. In addition, the empty space on the left of the oval would be too great and create and unbalanced painting that skewed to the right. Thus, in a way, the doctor balances out the oval and centers the painting. Outside of the oval, Agnew, and the rest of the medical staff, are distinguished from the students by their white attire. Against the dark sea of students, the medical staff pops out. Similar to The Gross Clinic, the main doctor in The Agnew Clinic looks away from the patient and into the presumed sea of students on the right of the painting, while the rest of the medical staff are concentrated on the student. This effect makes him authoritative and powerful. The doctor’s posture also adds to his authority. His right arm is bent at an almost 90 degree angle and his lower arm is straight and firm. This sturdy shape stabilizes him and the gesturing of his