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Thomas Eakins,
The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic

"Forming the hand of the mind" is an ideal in Emerson, a set of philosophical insights and procedures in James, and a literal depiction in dozens of Eakins' paintings. Few artists have more deeply explored the relation of idea and execution. For a quick introduction one need only glance at two of Eakins' best known works: The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic. They clearly take the relation of hand and mind as their subject.

Mind is vividly represented in both. Gross and Agnew are portrayed at moments of deep thoughtfulness. At the moment Eakins chooses to imagine, each professor of surgery has briefly paused in his operation (and his lecture) to ponder something. A variety of effects emphasize their thoughtfulness. In the first place, there is the presentation of the head. Each is placed against a darker background and lighted so as prominently to display his high-domed forehead, furrowed brows, and deep-set eyes. (Gross is more theatrically presented than Agnew, illuminated as he is by a single source of light which leaves half of his face dramatically shadowed and creates a semi-spiritualized aureole out of his light gray hair.) As he does in many other works, Eakins heightens the expressive effect of both heads by highly modeling them and placing them against backgrounds that are much "flatter" than they are (both in the sense of being less three-dimensionally rendered and being painted with less oily, more thinned-down pigments).

The placement of the surgeons with respect to the operating tables contributes to our sense that, at the moment Eakins has chosen to represent, each of the men has momentarily taken a meditative step off to one side of the heaving sea of activity around him. Each is marginalized by a spatial caesura (smaller for Gross and larger for Agnew), and pivoted slightly away from both the students he addresses and the operation he conducts. Insofar as both doctors are turned away from their assistants and their eyes are averted from contact with anyone around them, it is impossible to read the figures of Gross and Agnew as interacting socially or physically with anyone at the moment we glimpse them. We are meant to read them as "thinking." Their visual positioning figures their imaginative position: a state of contemplative withdrawal or meditative separation from the welter of events.

But it is critical to observe their states of withdrawal are only partial; both doctors are still immersed in and engaged with a series of practical events. After all, Eakins chooses to depict Gross and Agnew not in their studies as thinkers, but very much at work as doers. As surgeons and teachers in the midst of an operation, surrounded by hordes of others with various claims on their attention, they are in the middle of the most complex course of actions imaginable. This is a world in which action counts as much as thought–or, to put it more accurately, a world in which action can't be separated from thought.

I would argue that the point of both paintings is precisely the ways that Gross and Agnew bridge the realms of thinking and doing. Eakins brings the point home to us through a series of contrasts in which the meaningful connection of the two realms–of being with doing, of mental impulses to manual expressions–is flawed or absent in various ways. There are dozens of arms and hands visible (and invisible) in both paintings, and their sheer number and prominence draw our attention to them, but one of the things we slowly realize is that there are only a few in which hand and mind are linked in a disciplined, productive relationship–one in which mind informs hand and hand informs mind with the same degree of subtlety that Eakins' own hand and mind obviously worked in concert when he painted his work. Consider the most important groups of hands and arms in the two works:

In this whirl of compared and contrasted limbs and gestures, illustrating various forms and degrees of mental and manual disconnection or infacility, only Agnew and Gross truly combine mindfulness and handiness. In fact, in terms of one of the tenets of the pragmatic view, I would argue that they demonstrate that in acts of supreme creativity the difference between the two realms disappears. They erase the distinction between manual and mental dexterity, insofar as their scalpel-wielding hands are clearly energized and mobilized by their thoughts as much as their thoughts are disciplined and instructed by their practical performances.

The particular positions and gestures of both doctors express the blending of the realms. The verticality of their presentation tells us that the doctors rise above the merely executive functions of the horizontally displayed elements of the operating tables beside them–yet without losing touch with that realm of activity. As they step aside to think or make a point in their lectures, both doctors significantly hold scalpels poised for imminent action; they are not just lecturing about surgery, but practicing surgeons still at work. (No other figure is given a scalpel in either painting.) Gross is placed in an especially complex double position: even as he takes a half-step back and turns halfway to the side, he is shown continuing to lean on the operating table, with his left arm and his hand touching it (or the patient), maintaining intimate practical contact with the work at hand.

The same point is made less conceptually and more perceptually by the presentation of the group engaged in the operation in the Gross portrait. Eakins organizes the visual space so that, of all of the medical figures in the work, only Gross presents a coherent, clearly legible visual identity. In their merely manual functionality, the other figures around the operating table are all on the verge of dissolving into visual incoherence. The impression is all the more vivid when the painting is viewed not in a page-size reproduction but in life. In Eakins' looming, larger-than-life canvas, it becomes extremely hard to decipher the sprawl of the figures on and around the operating table (especially given the dark monochrome of the color scheme). Even in reduced-size reproduction, there is such a confusing overlap of bodies and limbs (with the patient crisscrossed by a network of assistants' hands and arms) that it becomes difficult to tell what limb belongs to what person, or where one body ends and the next begins (an effect heightened through the use of severe foreshortening). Gross alone presents a unitary bodily and mental presence, being granted a clear and separate visual identity. That is to say, as a blotch of paint, Gross organizes the visual spaces of his painting similar to the way, as a doctor, he organizes the surgical space. His visual composure and organization is a kind of metaphor for his psychological and functional composure and organization.

That is to say, the paintings are not only theatrical in their amphitheater settings and lighting effects, but subscribe to what might be called a fundamentally theatrical conception of personal identity. Figures express themselves not merely (as in traditional portrait painting) through their clothing, posture, gestures, and facial expressions, but by means of practical forms of action and interaction with others. They are defined not simply in terms of states of being (which might be said to be the expressive mode of most other portraits), but in their practical mastery of forms of doing. In Eakins' definition of who and what we are, consciousness is not a merely personal, private, internal state, but is required to externalize itself in a concrete course of action. The shift from the one definition of identity to the other might be called the pragmatic turn. We are, at least in large part, what we do. We are our hands as much as our minds. The union of the realms is crucial to the meaning of both paintings. For Eakins and all pragmatists, mental activity is not a time out from practical performance. Thought is not an alternative to action or action an alternative to thought (as in Platonic philosophy), but each is a continuation of the other. Gross's and Agnew's unique achievement is to bridge the realms of thinking and doing. They masterfully inject mind into the world.

When, in "What Pragmatism Means," James called for a philosophy that turns "towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power," he might have been describing not only the philosophical predilections of the sorts of sitters Eakins was interested in painting (many of whom are men known for their practical accomplishments), but Eakins' own fact-imbued forms of depiction. With his use of photography, his studies of perspective (and frequent use of perspective grids in his sketches), his motion studies, and his interest in science and engineering, Eakins was so devoted to concreteness and factuality that he laid himself open to frequent criticisms of what was said to be his overly "scientific," "factual," or "literal" treatment of his subjects. As Frank Stella once wittily remarked, works of art are always at least to some extent "lifted off the ground, up in the air," but Eakins' goal, like that of James, is to reestablish contact between ideals and practical realities.

It is not at all uncommon for artists to choose men of action and practical achievement as their subjects, but what distinguishes Eakins' work from that of most other nineteenth-century artists is his democratic and egalitarian definition of what constitutes achievement. As Elizabeth Johns has pointed out, heroism in Eakins' paintings (as in Whitman's poetry) is not confined to grand figures–clergymen, statesmen, and generals–but is a quality that almost anyone, anywhere can display: surgeons, scientists, and inventors–even rowers, boxers, baseball players, and hunters.

Eakins' work is, as Johns understands, about a new kind of heroism, but I would argue that what is most distinctive and important about Eakins' conception of heroism is not the fact that it includes the common man, but rather the mutually supportive relationship it imagines to exist between consciousness and performance. As both the Gross and the Agnew portraits demonstrate, the essence of this distinctively American conception of heroism is its stunning equation of mental and practical power, as if there were no inherent obstacle in converting the one into the other. That daring leap of faith from mind to matter is the heart and soul of the pragmatic position and the deepest connection between Eakins' work and pragmatic philosophy.

"American heroism," for Eakins as for James and Emerson, is precisely the ability of the individual to express his consciousness in worldly actions and events. To describe that transaction between inner and outer realms, Emerson invented the concept of "the heroic mind"–a term which signifies a state of blended thought and action in which the "thinking" and the "doing" are one (a concept which James borrowed verbatim from Emerson). It would not be too much to say that this belief that that the individual can perform his imagination in the world was the American dream: It was the vision that certain Romantic ideals of originality, creativity, and freedom (which English Romantics and German Idealists were willing to let remain states of consciousness) could be expressed in the ordinary doings of everyday life. To put it most baldly: The American dream consisted of the belief that to have a free imagination is actually to be able to make oneself free in society. As Emerson tantalizingly put it at several points in his writing, the mind was endowed with the capacity to "realize" itself.

But even Emerson seems slightly more cautious about the relation of the imagination to worldly expression than Eakins. When Emerson concludes "Experience" with the stirring peroration that "the true romance which the world exists to realize will be the transformation of genius into practical power," he at least has the prudence to call the ideal a "romance" and to locate it somewhere in the indefinite future (the place Emerson typically locates all of his ideals). Eakins puts the "realization of genius" in the here and now. The subject of almost all of his work is the intimate connection between ideas and acts, impulses and executions....

–Excerpted from Ray Carney, "When Mind is a Verb: Thomas Eakins and the Doing of Thinking," in Morris Dickstein (ed.) The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays in Social Thought, Law, and Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), pp. 377403.

Text Copyright 1999-2000 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.