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Monday, 20 September 2010

Alexandra Jopp on the Agnew Clinic

Artist Thomas Eakins 1889
Type Oil on canvas
Dimensions 214 cm × 300 cm (84⅜ in × 118⅛ in)
          Location John Morgan Building at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

By Alexandra A Jopp & Ronald Hawkins

For the art historian who embraces semiotics, meaning is ever-changing. Aspects of works of art become wild cards whose interpretations vary across cultures and eras, so that, “An image means one thing in one context, something else in another.” (Hatt 208) In its strictest form, semiotics holds that all verbal “signs” (words) and, less obviously and more controversially, all visual “signs” (images) are arbitrary conventions, names and pictures that we connect to concepts for no other reason than that we, as a society, decided to do so. While this is the orthodox method (as defined by Ferdinand de Saussure), the reform school of semiotics (offered by Charles Sanders Peirce) takes a more realist approach to the interpretation of visual signs, arguing that they can be divided into three general categories that acknowledges at least some connection between a concept and its visual representation. In David Lubin’s examination of Thomas Eakins’ “The Agnew Clinic,” we see the semiotic approach in all its frustrating glory.

For the art historian who embraces semiotics, “meaning is not something already there in the image, but rather something produced by the decoding of signs by the viewer.” (Hatt 206) In “The Agnew Clinic,” a painting ostensibly of a late-19th-century surgery in an operating room populated by Dr. D. Hayes Agnew, a highly regarded Philadelphia doctor, three other doctors, a nurse, an unconscious female patient and roughly two dozen observers, Lubin finds many signs to decode in unconventional ways. After reviewing the literal interpretations of the painting, including those that focus on “its alleged one-to-one correspondence with particular individuals who had a real-life historical existence,” (Lubin 45; emphasis added), Lubin delves into the “virtually endless” figurative analyses. (Lubin 45)

Agnew is generally considered to be a heroic figure who helped to bring surgery into the modern age, and “The Agnew Clinic” is thought to be a respectful portrait of the great man at work. For Lubin, though, this interpretation is not a given. We ascribe meaning to the images in the painting based on certain preconceived notions (“interpretants,” in Peirce’s jargon) that, Lubin argues, cannot be proven. For example, after quoting Schendler’s assertion that the good doctor’s visage shows “a consciousness of intellectual power and of human dignity in the extraordinary living figure, in the study of intelligence and professional competence joined vitally to feeling and to compassion,” Lubin mocks the reading with, “What a lot that is to find in a single face, a single head!” (Lubin 53) It seems that it is not so much that Lubin objects to certain interpretations of the painting as that he rejects any interpretation that is expressed with too much confidence, a hallmark of the semiotic approach that, after all, “does not seek to privilege one meaning over another. What matters is to describe the field of all possible interpretations.” (Hatt 220) Referring to the interpretations of Agnew’s face (though the comment is also more broadly applicable), Lubin asserts that “their truth value in terms of correspondence to a confirmed reality is logically impossible to determine, either by corroboration or falsification.” (Lubin 53) What Schendler was doing in his analysis, Lubin writes, was projecting “onto the face and head of Agnew precisely those modern-anxious or humanitarian-noble qualities and feelings that years of literary conditioning led [him], and might lead any of us, to expect.” (Lubin 54) Lubin goes on to take an opposite approach, suggesting interpretations that are far removed from the standard effects of “literary conditioning.”

Starting off relatively small, Lubin writes that Agnew is painted in such a way that viewers may or may not think he is speaking. Eakins may have meant to depict him in the act of giving instruction, or he may have sought to present him as an ideal, a monument, and such things do not talk. As a result, Lubin writes, “the viewer looking at Agnew can see him both as a teacher engaged in the act of teaching and as the symbol of a teacher.” (Lubin 55) These, though, are but the beginning of Lubin’s reinterpretations of Agnew. He gives the reader fair warning of what is to come when he writes, “Just as a word might have a single denotation but endless connotations, so with the visual image, once we have construed it literally, we find beckoning to us on the horizon a practically infinite number of figurative constructions.” (Lubin 56)

Lubin proposes first that Agnew may be seen as an artist. In semiotic terms, certain “signifiers” in the painting – the white garment he wears and the tool he holds in his left hand – are generally taken to be the “signifieds” of an operating cloak and a scalpel (or, at least, the “concepts” of an operating cloak and a scalpel). But “the relationship between signified and signifier is arbitrary” (Hatt 202), and Lubin suggests that the signifieds may be an artist’s smock and a paintbrush. Alternatively, Lubin offers Agnew as a critic, with the scalpel “interpreted as a symbol of critical instrumentality.” (Lubin 60) Such free association clearly rejects Peirce’s approach to semiotics in favor of the anti-realism of Saussure.

Lubin goes on to bring Freudian and feminist perspectives into his analysis, with critiques that focus on phallic images, masturbation and male domination. The (topless) female patient can be viewed erotically, which would make Agnew a “voyeur” with “a phallic instrument held lightly in his fingers only inches from the joining of his legs.” Lubin suggests that the image might be “postmasturbatory” and ties this to previous interpretations by noting that art creation and criticism can both be viewed as forms of self-gratification. (Lubin 63) He even suggests that the image may represent a gang rape. While conceding that this “was not in the realm of conscious intention,” he insists that “the depiction of masculinity subjugating femininity does seem an essential component of this work.” (Lubin 64)

Lubin also proposes that the painting represents Agnew three times – at different points in his life and in different degrees of sexual participation with the woman depicted – that the scene is “a magic show” and that it is “a live sex show.” He writes that “the creases of the sheet and folds of flesh join together to form an open, vagina-like pocket that invites the viewer to send forth ‘his’ phallic visual shaft.” (Lubin 74-5) This leads to a discussion of the power of the “gaze” that is redolent of the writing of Griselda Pollock: “The stare can thus be seen as an aggressive act, an act of appropriation, domination, objectification.” (Lubin 77) The once professional looks of Lubin and the other doctors have now become ways in which they “possess the woman stretched out upon the table.” (Lubin 77)

After acknowledging that it could be argued that “there is something preposterous” about finding erotica in a depiction of a surgical procedure, Lubin nonetheless asserts that “we must try to divest ourselves of preconceptions as to how things are supposed to be.” (Lubin 72; emphasis in original) Bringing forth multiple – and unconventional – interpretations of a work of art, he writes, helps us to “make visible the invisible, audible the inaudible, indigestible the predigested – and thus better comprehend how social phenomena that are cultural and arbitrary attempt to pass themselves off as natural and inevitable.” (Lubin 72) While discarding preconceptions can be useful when searching for meaning in a work of art, a semiotic approach rejects the very idea that there is any meaning, other than the most ephemeral: “The portrait of Dr. Agnew is never finished. Every time someone discovers a new relationship or meaning, ‘The Agnew Clinic’ has been altered, revised, recreated. … [A]s a figurative object, a psychologically invested object of perception, it is never the same from one moment to the next, let alone from one viewer to the next.” (Lubin 56) Interpreting art with semiotics, then, is little more than an exercise in futility.


Hatt, Michael and Charlotte Klonk. 2006. Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press.

Lubin, David. 1985. Act of Portrayal: Eakins, Sargent, James. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.


  1. In short, semiotics is a chimera - an undescribed, indescribled, incomprehensible nothing.

    Alexandra A Jopp

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