French philosopher Simone Weil observed that "the past, once destroyed, never returns. Its destruction is perhaps the greatest of all crimes."

That snippet of insight might apply to moving the Barnes Foundation, but fortunately not to Thomas Eakins' masterpiece, The Gross Clinic.

Since it was exhibited in the Centennial exposition of 1876 (not in the art section but in a mock-up of an Army hospital), the painting has undergone five major conservation interventions. Given that several of these effaced history, one hesitates to describe them all as "restorations."

The fifth such intervention, just completed, not only restored the masterpiece to something close to how it looked when it left the artist's studio, it also proved that Weil's aphorism isn't absolute. History might have been compromised years ago, but to a large extent it has been revived in one of America's greatest paintings.

An exhibition in the Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the restoration took place, serves as a coming-out party for the rehabilitated canvas. The project was carried out by the picture's joint owners, the Art Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

The restoration completes a reversal of physical decline that began in 1961, when The Gross Clinic was rescued from near-death.

In 1940, a well-meaning consultant had fastened two sheets of plywood to the back of the canvas to "stabilize" it. Twenty years later, the plywood had warped, threatening to tear the painting apart.

The plywood was laboriously removed in the nick of time, but The Gross Clinic still wasn't whole. Earlier conservators had stripped away some of the thin, dark overpainting that Eakins had applied to achieve tonal harmony. The painting had become brighter in some passages; it was out of balance.

Correcting this condition was a delicate undertaking, but the result has been worth the time and effort. We not only see the picture in a new light, we learn something about how Eakins thought about painting and how he translated that into technique.

You might wonder how a museum can make even a modestly scaled exhibition out of one painting. Curator Kathleen A. Foster has done so by creating edifying context, both for the painting's history and subject and for the technical processes that restored its integrity.

The painting depicts a surgical procedure being demonstrated by Dr. Samuel Gross, a legendary professor at Jefferson Medical College, now part of Thomas Jefferson University.

Eakins set the scene in a surgical amphitheater for maximum drama. He focused on the heroic figure of Gross, lit from above and poised, scalpel clutched in bloody fingers, to explain what he and his assistants were doing to the patient. The canvas is mostly dark; the audience of students and other observers, submerged in shadow, are dimly observed.

On an adjacent wall, Foster has hung Eakins' other major surgical portrait, The Agnew Clinic, painted in 1889 and lent by the University of Pennsylvania. The scene is similar; medical students watch as Dr. D. Hayes Agnew and assistants operate on a woman with breast cancer.

Even though this canvas is larger that The Gross Clinic, it's less visually commanding. The gory realism of its surgery is obscured, and Agnew, unlike Gross, stands apart from the operation.

The most striking contrast is tonal; where The Gross Clinic is penumbrous, The Agnew Clinic is almost uniformly bright, perhaps so that the students who commissioned the picture, and who posed for Eakins, can be more readily identified.

(This is the first time that Eakins' two major clinical paintings have been displayed together in Philadelphia, which adds distinction to the exhibition.)

There are only three other major paintings in the show, one being an Eakins genre painting called Mending the Net, previously conserved. Foster included it to explain how misunderstanding of Eakins' technique led to the kind of damage just remediated in The Gross Clinic.

The rest of the show consists of small preliminary studies, an X-radiograph of The Gross Clinic that reveals changes the artist made to his original conception, and a number of illustrated text panels that trace how the painting, and several others by Eakins, were altered over the years by insensitive and uninformed "restorers."

The show's key section is called "Eakins and True Tones." An artist trained as he was in traditional practice carefully considered the balance between light and dark passages. Eakins achieved his ideal by "toning down" brighter areas with translucent black glazes.

In The Gross Clinic as in Mending the Net, earlier restorers had stripped these delicate layers, often to make the paintings brighter and more appealing to the taste of their time.

Later conservators, wise to Eakins' intentions, have restored these modulating films as much as possible. This, in essence, is what has been done to The Gross Clinic.

The changes aren't startling; even visitors familiar with the painting might not notice them immediately. They mainly involve background figures standing in an archway. This area had been brightened, probably during a 1925 procedure.

So why is this restoration so significant? Because the conservators have not only physically rejuvenated a landmark canvas, they have corrected crimes against art history and against Eakins himself. By doing so, they help us to the principle that all art is best seen and understood within the cultural framework of its own time.

In 1884, French artist Georges Meusnier, writing under the pseudonym Karl Robert, summarized the aesthetic philosophy that Eakins followed in these words:

"It is in fact the correct observation of values [of light and dark] that constitutes the true skill of the artist, and, given that each person sees the visual world differently, it is on this that personality and originality are based."

Consequently, just as we now see the painting more accurately, we also see Eakins the artist in slightly higher relief.

The Gross Clinic will return to the Pennsylvania Academy in late January, where it will be the centerpiece of an exhibition called "Anatomy/Academy: Philadelphia Nexus of Art and Science," opening Jan. 29.

An exhibition of 10 early drawings and watercolors by Eakins will open in Gallery 118 of the Art Museum's main building in September, at a date to be announced.

Art: Healing History

"An Eakins Masterpiece Restored" continues in the Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fairmount and Pennsylvania Avenues, through Jan. 9. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission: $7 general, $6 for visitors 65 and older, $5 for students with I.D. and visitors 13 through 18. Information: 215-763-8100, 215-684-7500 or www.philamuseum.org.

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