WASHINGTON (AP) – The National Gallery plans to buy one of the 19th century’s best-known American paintings, “The Gross Clinic” by Thomas Eakins, for a record $68 million.

The sale price sets a record for a pre-World War II work of art created in the United States, according to a statement released Saturday by the painting’s owner, Thomas Jefferson University.

The National Gallery of Art will share the work with Alice Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, the statement said. Alice Walton founded the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which is scheduled to open in 2009 in Bentonville, Ark.

Philadelphia has long considered the painting one of its cultural treasures, and it has until Dec. 26 to come up with a matching offer. If it can’t, the National Gallery will probably display the painting in January, director Earl A. Powell III told The Washington Post.

Anne d’Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said she hoped various groups could find a way to keep the painting in the city.

Philadelphia is the “most spectacular and appropriate context” for the painting, she said, citing the artist’s long association with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the decision of Eakins’ widow to give her collection of his work to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The 8-by-7-foot painting shows a doctor and his students performing surgery on a boy’s leg, while his mother covers her face with her hands.

“This is the most important sale of a 19th-century American painting ever,” said Marc Porter, president of Christie’s Americas, which facilitated Friday’s purchase.

“The Gross Clinic” was bought for $200 in 1878 – three years after it was painted in Philadelphia – by Thomas Jefferson University, a medical and health sciences school in Philadelphia. The school plans to put the proceeds toward a new education building and the expansion of other complexes.

Eakins’ painting has been displayed in a student center art gallery, which gets about 500 visitors a year. The National Gallery has 4.5 million visitors a year.

AP-ES-11-11-06 1459EST

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