The Agnew Clinic
Portrait of the Nurse as a Young Woman
The Agnew Clinic has disturbed and delighted viewers since it was commissioned by the Penn Medical Class of 1889 to honor their retiring professor Dr. Agnew.
But the painting isn’t just an artistic masterpiece—it depicts important medical advances as well. One of the medical trends evident in the painting is the increasing reliance on assistants during surgery. This was true at Penn in the 19th century, as student nurses were expected to work at the hospital while they were receiving training. The nurse assisting in the painting is Mary V. Clymer.
Dr. D. Hayes Agnew
Mary V. Clymer, Nurse
The Medical Class of 1889
Realism, Reactions, Interpretations
Realism: an artistic movement that began in France in the 1850s aiming to reject sentimentality and artificial artistic conventions, in an attempt to present the “truth” of the subject, however ugly or sordid. The Agnew Clinic is considered to be within this artistic school.
Reactions to The Agnew Clinic when it was unveiled were mixed, to say the least, and have remained so ever since.
Eakins’ contemporaries in the art world were uncomfortable with the depiction of a naked breast, and considered the bloodiness of the painting gratuitous. It was rejected for exhibition in 1891 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and would not be publicly shown until the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition.
While critics are now more comfortable with the nudity and blood in the painting, they still struggle with how to interpret Clymer as a lone female figure. What is her relationship to the surgeons and observers? To the woman being operated on? Outranked by both the male doctor and medical students, she is nevertheless a professional, unlike the female patient. Judith Fryer (1991) asks,
“With whom does she identify—the doctors or the unconscious and mutilated woman? (‘The Female Body’, 237)”
Other analyses of the painting focus on what Clymer’s presence might have meant to others looking at the painting.
Some biographers of Eakins, such as Goodrich (1970) believe that the figure of Clymer may function as a symbol of surgical advancement—her lack of expression may be intended to convey the rational, scientific nature of medicine and surgical intervention.
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