Aftershocks of the $68 million sale of Thomas Eakins'

The Gross Clinic

rippled across the city's cultural landscape yesterday as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts disclosed that it had sold one of its most recognizable paintings - Eakins'

The Cello Player

- to help finance the deal.

"We gave it long and careful and agonizing consideration," said Herbert Riband, the academy board vice chairman. "Our board did not undertake this lightly."

Riband did not know the identity of the buyer, and would not disclose the price paid for the large 1896 oil portrait of renowned cellist Rudolf Henning, intense and alone with his instrument.

The painting was purchased by the academy in 1897 and has been on public view there ever since.

The sale, which struck members of the city's cultural community with a bittersweet force, was necessitated by settlement on The Gross Clinic, Eakins' 1875 masterpiece, previously owned by Thomas Jefferson University.

"Had we not deaccessioned, we would have had a truly burdensome amount of debt," Riband said, using museum parlance referring to collection sales. He said that the board considered multiple options and determined that "in terms of price, commitment from the buyer," and the nature of what else within the academy's collection "we would have to sell," this was the most effective way to eliminate the debt.

"It's a very quiet - but powerfully quiet - painting," Susanna W. Gold, lecturer in American art at Temple University, said of The Cello Player. "I'm not happy for it to go into the hands of a private collector [if that proves to be the case], but The Gross Clinic would have been a loss to the city of Philadelphia."

Jefferson University announced in November that a partnership of the National Gallery of Art and a planned Arkansas museum backed by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton would acquire The Gross Clinic.

An unusual proviso in the sales contract allowed the academy and the Philadelphia Museum of Art to mount a fund-raising campaign seeking to match the sale price and acquire the iconic painting locally.

On Tuesday evening, the papers were signed and ownership of The Gross Clinic passed to the two Philadelphia institutions. The mammoth canvas is currently on view at the Art Museum and will move to the academy March 5, remaining there until the end of June 2008.

Academy and museum officials said yesterday that, so far, they had raised between $37 million and $38 million of the $68 million purchase price from about 3,400 donors.

Bridge financing at the settlement was provided by Wachovia and PNC banks, with each art institution assuming responsibility for half the debt.

The sale of The Cello Player, Riband said, would substantially reduce, but not eliminate, the academy's debt.

Anne d'Harnoncourt, director and chief executive of the Art Museum, said her institution would likely sell some art to defray its share of the debt as well.

"We are looking very seriously at deaccessioning," she said, adding that no works had been selected for the marketplace so far.

The Cello Player has been on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City as part of the recently shuttered "Americans in Paris" show.

It will not be returning permanently to the academy. The new owner will, however, lend the painting to the academy for exhibition as needed, Riband said.

Elizabeth Johns, a well-known Eakins scholar who is now museum scholar at Maryland's Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, said The Cello Player had "a charisma" and was "most definitely tied to the rich cultural history of Philadelphia."

"I doubt it was not on [public] display for very long," since the academy acquired it a century ago, she said. "I think I could always count on seeing it. I thought, and I always taught my students, that we are living in an era where more and more works covetously held in private hands were entering public collections."

Michael Lewis, a Center City resident and professor of art history at Williams College, said museums traditionally may sell works to acquire works.

"It's an old established practice that museums can tinker with their collections to improve their collections," Lewis said. "In this case, it's trading something from the heart of what they do - American realism. The argument [for the sale] is a little murkier."

"The net deal," Lewis mused, "is sort of break-even."

Jefferson officials issued a statement yesterday noting that the sale money from The Gross Clinic would be used to create the Eakins Legacy Fund, which will be invested and used to fund scholarships, professorships for outstanding faculty, and support for the university's mission-directed strategic initiatives, ranging from new faculty recruitment to classroom and laboratory renovations for new programs.

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com

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