Decoding Philadelphia’s Biotech Mural

The work of public art nods to "The Gross Clinic," a famous 19th century painting of a teaching surgeon.

Eakins painting in biotech mural
Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) by Thomas Eakins. The 1875 painting is part of the American Art collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Promise of Biotechnology mural sponsored by global rare and serious disease leader CSL Behring and created by the team at Mural Arts Philadelphia is settling into the neighborhood at 11th and Sansom streets.

Gone are the hydraulic scissor lift and the scaffolding that were on site in June, when the mural was finished and unveiled. The paint cans have been carted away. Artist Eric Okdeh’s completed, five-story-high design soars over the space, a commanding wall of yellows, blues and greens, the colors of living things on earth, biology.

The mural’s story is designed to be “readable from street,” as Okdeh put it when the project was in development. A young woman reads a science text book at the upper left. Microbes rainbow around the fronds of an aloe plant whose leaves bear significant scientific achievements in Philadelphia. Future breakthroughs – with all their potential and possibilities - fan out at the bottom right.

Okdeh said he wanted a design so rich that people will see something new even after multiple viewings. Upon closer inspection, we spotted an homage to the well-known Thomas Eakins’s painting, “The Gross Clinic.” The Eakins painting, created for Philadelphia’s 1876 centennial celebration, is considered among the greatest American paintings ever made, according to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which houses it in its collection. The painting, by a then-unknown Eakins, pays tribute to Gross who demonstrates a surgical procedure on a patient’s leg at the Jefferson Medical College surgical amphitheater.

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In Okdeh’s mural, Gross’ surgical lesson is echoed to the left with the depiction of a modern-day surgical team. It’s also reflected on the right side of the artwork, where a male figure strikes the same pose as the teaching surgeon immortalized in the painting.

Though the Eakins painting is 140 years old, it communicates the same theme Okdeh was working with in the new mural: medical achievement in Philadelphia.

As a muralist I’m always layering in elements of meaning into a design with my references. I knew for quite some time that this was a reference I wanted to make,” Okdeh said.

In his day, Eakins’s painting was thought by some to be too realistic and it was rejected by the centennial’s art jury. “The Gross Clinic” was relegated to an exhibit showing a model Army field hospital, according to the description of the painting on the art museum’s website. But even then, wiser art critics saw its power.

“There is nothing so fine in the American section of the Art Department of the Exhibition,” The Philadelphia Evening Telegraph wrote in June 16, 1876. The newspaper called it “a great pity” that the painting didn’t get its due.