Eakins portrayed Forbes lecturing to students in the clinical amphitheater of Jefferson's first hospital which had been erected in 1877. The seventy-four-year-old physician was still the professor of anatomy. Three significant objects on the table include a book entitled Opera Harveii , the collected works of William Harvey, the seventeenth-century English anatomist admired by Forbes; a parchment document labeled "The Anatomy Act" hanging over the edge of the venerable operating table; and a skull symbolizing Forbes's renown as a teacher of anatomy, and perhaps also serving as a memento mori for Forbes's advancing age. A Latin inscription on the wall in front of the attentive students credits Forbes for implementing the Anatomy Act.
At first glance the anatomist is an imposing figure, tall and stocky, occupying center stage. But then one notices signs of frailty and vulnerability. Forbes's posture is stooped and he seems unsteady on his feet, leaning on the operating table for support. Though fashionably dressed in a black frock coat, his trousers are rumpled and baggy, pooling around his ankles. His graying hair and whiskers are thin and wispy, and the skin on his neck is slack and wrinkled. Deep lines are etched onto his face and dark circles underlie his eyes.
Only Forbes's expressive hands retain their vigor. His still-strong hands interact with the objects and allude to his physically demanding career. The index finger of his right hand points to the proclamation and the fingertips of his left hand rest on the parchment.
Here time and motion have slowed down and the mood is more reflective. Forbes stands alone in the foreground gazing into the distance. The architectural space is shallow, and few tiers of students are visible. The somber, almost monochromatic tan and brown tones allude to the physician's stately dignity and meditative mood. There is an all-pervasive stillness to the room. A golden glow emanating from the skylight above highlights the professor's head and hand, shirt collar, and gold commemorative pocket watch. The metaphorical means of Eakins's empathetic portrayal increase the poignancy of the moment. One senses that William S. Forbes is an aging physician reflecting on the past, hopefully concluding that the achievements outweighed the ordeals.
In the twilight of his career Forbes was doubly honored for his contributions at a unique ceremony. In 1905 "junior alumni" and students from Jefferson classes of 1905-08 presented the Eakins portrait at the eightieth annual commencement. Then in a rare collaborative gesture the University of Pennsylvania Medical Alumni Association presented alumnus Forbes (he had degrees from both medical schools) with an inscribed silver loving cup as a symbol of their esteem.