The Agnew Clinic depicts Dr. Agnew performing a partial mastectomy in a medical amphitheater. The work is a prime example of Eakins's scientific realism. The rendering is almost photographically precise - so much so that art historians have been able to identify everyone depicted in the painting, with the exception of the patient.
The Agnew Clinic is one of Eakins's most hotly debated works. His decision to portray a partially nude woman observed by a roomful of men (even though they were doctors) was controversial. It was rejected for exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1891, and at New York's Society of American Artists in 1892. Its exhibition at Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition was criticized.
The Agnew Clinic, or, The Clinic of Dr. Agnew, is an 1889 oil painting by American artist Thomas Eakins, Goodrich #235. It was commissioned to honor anatomist and surgeon David Hayes Agnew, on his retirement from teaching at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Agnew Clinic depicts Dr. Agnew performing a partial mastectomy in a medical amphitheater. He stands in the left foreground, holding a scalpel. Also present are Dr. J. William White, applying a bandage to the patient; Dr. Joseph Leidy (nephew of paleontologist Joseph Leidy), taking the patient's pulse; and Dr. Ellwood R. Kirby, administering anesthetic. In the background, the operating room nurse, Mary Clymer, and University of Pennsylvania medical school students observe. Eakins placed himself in the painting – he is the rightmost of the pair behind the nurse – although the actual painting of him is attributed to his wife, Susan Macdowell Eakins. The painting, also, records the significant transition, in just 14 years, from the earlier status quo — the participants' black frock coats represented in The Gross Clinic (1875) — to the "white coats" of 1889.
The painting is Eakins's largest work. It was commissioned for $750 (equivalent to $20,428 today) in 1889 by three undergraduate classes at the University of Pennsylvania, to honor Dr. Agnew on the occasion of his retirement. The painting was completed quickly, in three months, rather than the year that Eakins took for The Gross Clinic. Eakins carved a Latin inscription into the painting's frame. Translated, it says: "D. Hayes Agnew M.D. Most experienced surgeon, clearest writer and teacher, most venerated and beloved man."
The work is a prime example of Eakins's scientific realism. The rendering is almost photographically precise - so much so that art historians have been able to identify everyone depicted in the painting, with the exception of the patient. It largely repeats the subject of Eakins's earlier The Gross Clinic (1875), seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The painting echoes the subject and treatment of Rembrandt's famous Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) (in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, the Netherlands), and other earlier depictions of public surgery such as the frontispiece of Andreas Vesalius's De humani corporis fabrica (1543), the Quack Physicians' Hall (c. 1730) by the Dutch artist Egbert van Heemskerck, and the fourth scene in William Hogarth's The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751).
Students of the medical class of 1889 who commissioned The Agnew Clinic are portrayed as the audience for the surgery—as historian Amanda Mahoney points out, all individuals depicted in the work can be identified by name, except for the patient—and this audience of male medical students creates a composition that highlights power dynamics between the masculine and the feminine in the academic medical hierarchy. Central to the medical care of the patient yet separate in her femininity stands the woman in white—the nurse, Mary Clymer, who serves as the surgeon Agnew’s “structural counterpart” in the composition of the painting, the only other figure on the same level as the surgeon.
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