Ask Benny: Is Eakins' famous painting still on campus?

Dear Benny,
Is “The Agnew Clinic” by Thomas Eakins still hanging in one of the School of Medicine buildings? How did we come to have that painting? Is there some connection between Penn and Eakins?
—Avid About Art

Dear Eakins Aficionado,
First, the disappointing news: “The Agnew Clinic” has left the campus. The famous 1889 painting by Thomas Eakins used to hang in the John Morgan Building on Hamilton Walk. But as building manager Kevin Powell told us, a steam leak in the building in 2000 damaged the painting and it was removed from display.
After being restored, the painting went on tour to the Museé d’Orsay in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as part of a Thomas Eakins retrospective exhibition. Since its return, it has been on permanent loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The subject of the painting, Dr. D. Hayes Agnew, was a leading surgeon who cared for President Garfield following his fatal shooting, and became chair of surgery at Penn in 1878. Upon Agnew’s retirement, a group of medical students commissioned Eakins to paint a portrait of their professor for $750.

The largest painting ever made by Eakins, “The Agnew Clinic” shows the professor presiding over an operation in a surgical amphitheater full of students. Each face in the background, apparently, was a portrait of an actual student.

Though the painting is distinctly less gory than “The Gross Clinic,” Eakins’ other foray into medical art, “The Agnew Clinic” was denied exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts after it was deemed “not cheerful for ladies to look on.”


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Originally published on March 31, 2005