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Penn Reading Project Turns to the Arts
February 10, 2009, Volume 55, No. 21



This fall, the focus of the Penn Reading Project for the Class of 2013 will be  Thomas Eakins’ painting, The Gross Clinic, or Portrait of Professor Gross, 1875, (above) oil on canvas, 8’ x 6’6” (243.8 x 198.1 cm). Gift of the Alumni Association to Jefferson Medical College in 1878 and purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2007 with the generous support of more than 3,500 donors. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art).

The Office of the Provost, the Council of Undergraduate Deans, and the Office of College Houses and Academic Services are pleased to announce that Thomas Eakins’ painting, The Gross Clinic, or Portrait of Professor Gross, will be the text for the 2009-10 freshmen Penn Reading Project (PRP), a program that is part of an overarching Arts and the City theme year. On the afternoon of Sunday, September 6, 2009, groups of first-year students and faculty leaders will join together to discuss this work as part of New Student Orientation for the Class of 2013. 

This is the first Penn Reading Project to use a visual text, and The Gross Clinic will introduce students from the start to the critical skill of interpreting visual material. This choice also reflects a celebration of art in Philadelphia and cultural activism on the part of our citizens, and underscores the importance of the arts in civic life. In addition, Penn’s year-long programming will showcase many on-campus arts resources. For the visual arts, these include academic programs (visual studies, history of art, and the School of Design, etc.) and cultural institutions open to the public (the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Arthur Ross Gallery, and the Penn Museum). Eakins’ related painting, The Agnew Clinic, depicts Penn’s Medical Class of 1889, and is in the University’s collection.

Thomas Eakins is an artist distinctly identified with Philadelphia, and his 1875 painting, The Gross Clinic—often called the greatest American painting of the 19th century and compared to Rembrandt’s The Night Watch—depicts a Philadelphia scene: a surgical amphitheatre where Dr. Samuel D. Gross is treating a patient with osteomyelitis. This was a period when Philadelphia was the capital of medical innovation in the United States, and in addition to its artistic merits, The Gross Clinic is a major historical document for understanding hospitals, patients, medical practice and public health. The PRP discussions will involve faculty from all areas, and particular participation is expected in the medical and nursing schools, history and sociology of science, biology and other sciences. 

Just as The Gross Clinic was a defining document in its time, more than a century later it prompted a similarly defining moment of civic pride in Philadelphia. In 2006, when the painting was on the verge of purchase for a private museum in another state, a heroic campaign—involving cultural institutions including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, as well as local citizens—raised nearly $70 million to keep the painting in Philadelphia. It is, as a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial put it, “a great story.”

Looking Back Nearly Two Decades and Planning Ahead for September

Penn Reading Project, now in its nineteenth year, was created as a day-long introduction for incoming freshmen to academic life at Penn. Earlier in the day, a symposium on topics related to the painting will be presented to the incoming class and participating faculty. Later, students and leaders will meet for small group discussions.

Past PRP texts included fiction, non-fiction, and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Information about the Penn Reading Project and its history can be found at: www.collegehouses.upenn.edu/prp/.

Faculty members in all 12 schools are invited to take part as PRP discussion leaders. Additional information will be sent to discussion leaders and students in July. Those who wish to sign up, may go directly to the database: www.rescomp.upenn.edu/prpleaders. (If you registered last year, you can simply update your information—and also indicate if you’ll participate in this year’s prep session and lectures.)

For more information, please contact: David Fox, director, Penn Reading Project, (215) 573-5636 or dfox@upenn.edu.


A Retrospective of Prior PRP Selections

Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin (2008)

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (2007)

Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig (2006)

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (2005)

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Galdwell (2004)

The Quiet American by Graham Greene (2003)

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (2002)

Candide by Voltaire (2001)

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (2000)

Copenhagen byMichael Frayn (1999)

Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston (1998)

Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills (1997)

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (1996)

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard (1995)

Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman (1994)

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1993)

Narrative by Frederick Douglass (1992)

The Bacchae by Euripides (1991)

Almanac - February 10, 2009, Volume 55, No. 21