The emotionally charged saga of Thomas Eakins' iconic painting

The Gross Clinic

ended on a positive note yesterday when the Philadelphia Museum of Art announced that it had raised the last chunk of money needed to keep the 19th-century masterpiece in Philadelphia.

The museum disclosed that it had sold an Eakins painting from its collection, Cowboy Singing, to the Denver Art Museum and the private Anschutz Collection, also in Denver, which will own it jointly. The sale also included two oil sketches for another western scene by Eakins, Cowboys in the Badlands. The sketches go to the Denver museum, although the painting for which they are studies belongs to Anschutz.

As is customary with art transactions, both museums declined to disclose the amount of the sale. The Art Museum needed to raise about $15 million to cover its share of the joint purchase, with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, of The Gross Clinic from Thomas Jefferson University early last year. The museum would only confirm that the sale retired its debt.

When the university announced in the fall of 2006 that it had arranged to sell The Gross Clinic, which it had owned since 1878, for $68 million, the city's cultural community was galvanized to keep the painting here. Jefferson softened the blow by giving the community 45 days to raise the purchase price.

The putative buyers were the National Gallery of Art in Washington and Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, who is building an art museum called Crystal Bridges in her native Arkansas.

Many residents, Jefferson alumni and artists felt strongly that the painting could not be allowed to leave the city. The Gross Clinic not only was a transcendent masterpiece, it portrayed a Philadelphian, Dr. Samuel Gross, performing surgery at the then-Jefferson Medical College.

The Art Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy led an energetic fund-raising campaign that eventually involved 3,500 donors from all 50 states and raised about $37 million. With more than half the purchase price in hand, the two museums agreed to raise the balance and share ownership of the picture. (Now at the Academy, The Gross Clinic will move to the Art Museum in August.)

The Academy covered its obligation by selling a major Eakins from its collection, The Cello Player, early in 2007 to a private buyer for a price estimated unofficially at $15 million, and perhaps as much as $18 million. This sale provoked a flood of criticism because The Cello Player was arguably the best of the four major Eakins paintings the Academy owned. In effect, it gave up a superior Eakins, which it had owned since 1897, for one-half of a great one.

By contrast, the Art Museum, whose Eakins collection is far deeper, hasn't created a deficit in its collection. Cowboy Singing, one of a series of works that relates to an extended trip the artist made to the then-Dakota Territory in 1887, nearly duplicates another picture at the Art Museum, Home Ranch. Both depict a cowboy wearing fringed buckskins seated in a chair (purportedly in a bunkhouse) and singing while playing a stringed instrument. In Cowboy Singing it's a banjo, in Home Ranch a guitar.

Because of its sketchier finish and slightly less engaging context, Cowboy Singing isn't quite as desirable. So the museum was able to part with it without significantly diminishing its Eakins holdings - about 80 oils, drawings, photographs and sculptures.

Cowboy Singing, painted in 1892, came to the Art Museum in 1929 as part of a larger gift from the artist's widow, Susan MacDowell Eakins, and her friend, Mary Adeline Williams, executors of his estate. The deed of gift specified that the museum could "exchange" paintings in the gift for others if it believed that a particular exchange would be "favorable to the memory and reputation of Thomas Eakins" and "provided due care shall be taken . . . to preserve always a representative group" of his works. Such is the case with this sale.

As an added bonus for museumgoers, Cowboy Singing remains partly in the public sphere. (The Anschutz Collection is not open to the public.)

Selling at least one Eakins was always probable once the Art Museum committed to saving The Gross Clinic. To accommodate standard professional protocols in such situations, museums prefer to "trade up" a particular artist by selling something by the same artist, either a duplicate or a lesser work.

In retrospect, the choice seems obvious, given that Home Ranch remains on view here. Yet, because the museum owns many pieces by Eakins, the process had to involve reviews and consultations involving curators, Eakins scholars, several trustee committees and finally the full board of trustees.

In the Denver Art Museum and the Anschutz Collection, the Art Museum found ideal homes for the Eakins works. Both institutions house large collections of American art that depict Western subjects. The painting will alternate between the two at six-month to one-year intervals. The joint acquisition reflects a long-standing collaborative relationship with the Anschutz Collection.

The museum, where Cowboy Singing and the two sketches went on view yesterday, also owns one of this country's largest and most comprehensive collections of Native American art and artifacts. Cowboy Singing is its first work by Eakins.

Museum director Lewis Sharp described the acquisition as "a major milestone for the museum's collection" and said it "exemplifies the commitment we have to making Denver a major center for Western American art."

The Anschutz Collection belongs to Philip F. Anschutz, chairman and chief executive officer of Denver's Anschutz Corp., a holding company involved in oil and gas extraction, construction, real estate, entertainment and media.

In a statement yesterday, Art Museum director Anne d'Harnoncourt said the decision to sell Cowboy Singing and the oil sketches was not made lightly.

"It was always our hope to keep these works in the public domain, and in this we succeeded. We're pleased that they will find a broad audience in Denver, where they can be seen in the context of other important collections of Western American art."

On behalf of her museum and the Pennsylvania Academy, D'Harnoncourt expressed "heartfelt gratitude to everyone who made it possible for Thomas Eakins' greatest work, The Gross Clinic, to remain in Philadelphia, the city with which it is so closely identified."

Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or esozanski@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/edwardsozanski.