Tuesday, 21 October 2014



Over the years I have known many medical doctors who have taken an extra-curricular interest in the connoisseurship and collecting of fine art. But what about the other way around? What has happened when fine artists have taken an interest in medicine?

I am not the only one to have wondered about this, as there exist quite a few sizeable publications that survey the topic. Two that are particularly noteworthy compilations are The Art of Medicine (Anderson, Julie et al.), Medicine: A Treasury of Art and Literature (Carmichael and Ratzan), and Medicine in Art (ed. Rousselot, Jean). Based on content from these fine publications and on my own observations, this blog will briefly highlight artists’ depictions of the practice of medicine throughout the history of art.

Various book cover illustrations about Medicine and Art

Unfortunately, Canadian artists are not featured in these publications and most of my own observations are also not regarding Canadian art. Perhaps this is because the majority of Canada’s rich art history dates to the 20th century; and it is said in Medicine in Art that “it is quite astonishing that in our century (20th) medicine has made immense progress in all areas,” and yet “that it is rare to have work of direct observation of medical practice.” In short, I believe that photography and film might play a role in the lack of fine art of medicine in action. However, I would also suggest that a curiosity about the medical field instead appears in other areas of the arts, such as television. Artistic interpretations and glimpses into the realm of medicine come in the form of movies, tv series and documentaries such as Rescue 911, ER, Grey’s Anatomy, Miracle Babies (Canadian), House, Call the Midwife and so many more. In which case, then medicine in the arts does have a place in contemporary Canadian culture. (Life + Death at Vancouver General Hospital is a current reality television series being filmed right here for example) Perhaps film is why there are few fine art paintings of medical subjects in the history of Canadian art throughout the last century.

I can however think of one excellent and exceptional Canadian painting of medical subject matter, and we have had the pleasure of having it at Masters Gallery both in Vancouver and Calgary this year. In stunning hyperrealism and with skillful delicacy, Marc-Aurele Suzor-Cote painted a large-scale canvas of a children’s hospital ward, singling in on an ill young child being visited by a saddened loved one. When Suzor-Cote was studying in Europe he travelled widely and honed his skills by meticulously copying famous Old Master and Academic paintings. Suzor-Cote’s The Visit (1905) is copied from Visiting Day in the Hospital by Henri Jules Jean Geoffrey (Town Hall Vichy) Geoffrey’s version does in fact feature in Medicine in Art in the chapter about the 19th century.

Marc-Aurele Suzor-Cote The Visit (1905) oil on canvas (Masters Gallery Ltd.)

Jean Geoffrey Visiting Day at the Hospital (1889) (Town Hall Vichy, Musee d'Orsay)

I personally would consider the 19th century to be the heyday of sophisticated interpretations of medicine in art. The subject fits perfectly into the realm of genre painting, which was prevalent during that century. Both art and medicine changed enormously in the 1800s, arguably both fields were revolutionized by the close of the century. Surgery became it’s own discipline, and doctors were affirmed as important citizens and well-respected figures. There were changes in status for artists too, as they were being afforded more creative independence than before. They became less reliant on commissioning patrons, who had control of the subject and style they desired. Thus artists saw greater freedom of expression.

Albert Edelfelt Pasteur in his laboratory in 1885 (Musee de Versailles)

Artists associated with the art movements of romanticism and realism found the world of medicine was an ideal subject to express their ideologies. Medicine in Art states that, “Medicine could not fail to interest the romantic painters. Searching for unusual subject matter that would allow for a melodramatic and tormented style, they turned to hospitals, asylums, and epidemics.” Romanticists used themes such as the caring doctor, the obedient child, and fainting spells.

Louis-Leopald Boilly The Vaccination (1807)

Andre Brouillet A Clinical Lesson With Dr. Charcot at the Salpetriere (1887)

Medicine was suitably attractive as a subject matter in realism too. Realists aimed to draw attention to social realities of the time. The endemic presence of illness, injury and disease and their inevitable and necessary management was considered a crucial aspect of daily life and reality; thus appealing to realist painters.

Henri Gervex Before the Operation, with Dr. Pean (1887)

Georges Chicotot The Insertion of a Tube (c 1890)

Romanticism and most realism were suitable ‘official’ art, and many paintings would have been exhibited with praise at higher institutions. The noble acts and empathetic traits assumed of doctors and their deliverance of their patients made the practice of medicine an ideal subject for ‘official’ art and the 19th century mentality in general. Recognition of the feats of medicine through art seems a natural turn of events in such an epoch, and medicine in art thrived beyond European soil as well. Likely one of the most visually recognizable paintings depicting medicine of all times is The Gross Clinic by American Thomas Eakins. There were many other contemporaneous master artists that depicted passionate, insightful or raw glimpses into the medical profession throughout the century, and resultantly is a mass of powerful and evocative masterpieces from this time.

Thomas Eakins The Gross Clinic (1875) (Jefferson Medical College Collection)

Thomas Eakins The Agnew Clinic (1889)

The previous century was not one in which medicine and art co-mingled as often as in the 19th century, or even other eras beforehand. Lacking the sentimentality of the proceeding period, the 18th century lent towards skepticism instead. For various political reasons a belief that the world was falling apart was felt. The result was a societal desire to forget the woes of the world by indulging in frivolity and merriment. Medicine in Art adroitly indicates that at this time there was “no place for the serious painter.” If medicine was depicted, it was most likely in a cynical caricature. Whilst medicine was less frequently showcased in a good light in art, the field was making advances during this period. Let us move backwards in time even further, to a period when medicine was richly included in art.

William Hogarth The Visit to the Quack Doctor (1743) (The National Gallery, London)

This brings us to a time and place that I consider to be the next most fruitful for the representation of medicine in art history. Specifically in Dutch territories, the 17th century was a prosperous era for the independent state, and a Golden Age of art, business, and trade thrived. This success brought about a national flavour that is evident in Dutch Golden Age art. The middle and upper classes expanded, and it was not uncommon for wealthy citizens to found hospitals, hospices, orphanages, and lay convents. They also funded academies where medicine could be practiced, as the Dutch of this time held the human body and its mysteries in high esteem.

Engraving of a 17th century Anatomical Theatre, Leiden, Netherlands

Adam Elsheimer Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Giving Food to Patients in a Hospital (1598)

The wealthy that sponsored the aforementioned ventures welcomed praise and thanks for their support. They would regularly commission artists to paint them in a favourable light in gratitude for their charitable contributions. Thus, a type of medically related scenario became common in 17th century Dutch art whereby donors and directors were painted assembled in situ in their founded establishments. Doctors and surgeons were well-respected citizens as well, and therefore also painted by artists in a favourable manner, though more likely in a pose for effect rather than in true action. ‘The anatomy lesson’ presented artists with a good opportunity to paint doctors and surgeons posing or in action, and as one of the most prevailing scenes regarding medical practice throughout time it also is quite prominent in Dutch 17th century art. Rembrandt painted the well-known Professor Tulp’s Anatomy Lesson in this era, and he was not the only renowned painter of the time to create their ‘anatony lessons’ with eminent doctors and surgeons. Genre painting (scenes of everyday life) was a large component of Dutch Golden Age art, and medical practice lent well to it.

Rembrandt van Rijn The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp (1632) (Mauritshuis Museum, the Hague)

Adriaen Backer The Anatomy Lesson by Dr. Frederik Ruysch (1670)Commissioned by the Surgeon's Guild, Amsterdam (Amsterdam Museum)

Thomas de Keyser The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaen Egbertsz de Vrij (1619) (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Jan Steen The Doctor's Visit (c 1665) (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

The roots for the Dutch appreciation for the mysteries of the human body came from the Renaissance, starting in the 2nd half of the 15th century and lasting throughout the 16th century. The Renaissance was a time of discovery and of humanism, which led to a widespread interest in learning more about man and his physique. Thus human anatomy and medicine gained attention. Artists and doctors keenly studied anatomical structures, so much so that many artists would probably have considered themselves to be scientists of a sort and not exclusively artists.

Artists followed many learned pursuits (embodying the expression ‘A Renaissance Man’ rather well) Leonardo da Vinci is of course the most well-known example of this, as well as Michelangelo. They engaged in dissections, autopsies and various modes of forensic medicine. This dedication to anatomy led to increasingly accurate renderings of operations and anatomy scenes; however the ‘anatomy drawing’ itself was more often rendered than scenes of doctors and surgeons in action practicing medicine during this period. Anatomy drawings represent the greatest collaboration between art and medicine during the Renaissance.

Artists researched and draughted highly detailed drawings of the human form to aid in a greater understanding of human anatomy. The chapter devoted to the Renaissance in Medicine in Art tells that, “the interconnections…(and)… functioning of muscles, bones and organs now interested doctors and artists,” (and) “an exact anatomical knowledge for the artist was demanded alongside attention to bodily forms in the work of art.” Anatomy drawings had a function, but they are artistic and beautiful in their own way and make this an interesting period within which artists show a great interest in medicine.

Anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci (circa 1510)

Anatomical drawings by Michelangelo Buonarroti (circa 1510)

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) Self-Portrait meant for a long-distance consultation with his Doctor The text reads: "there, on the yellow spot, where my finger is pointing, is where my pain is." (now in the Kunsthalle, Bremen, Germany)

Prior to the Renaissance, there was greater religious involvement in medical practice. Monasteries were primary caregiving facilities, and saw to the care of patients more often than doctors and surgeons. It was not until the end of the Middle Ages that medical practitioners worked more independently from the Church. Medicine still features in art during the Middle Ages; however as per the above there was heavy use of religious symbolism involved. The imagery therefore is not always representative of true practice; but rather the beliefs surrounding healing.

In direct relation to readings in the Bible, there were often depictions of ‘Christ the Doctor’ healing the infirm. Other saints like Luke the Evangelist (who was a Doctor) or various patron saints of specific ailments are also depicted as healers in art.

Medieval illumination of Christ Healing a Leper ( date unknown)

Medieval book illustration of St. Roch (Patron Saint of the Bubonic Plague) Healing a Patient

Limb Transplantation by Saints Cosmos and Damian, Swabian c. 1500 (Stuttgart)

Despite popular belief, Medicine in Art indicates that there was “ actually a lively interest in medical science,” during the medieval era. Another common medieval medical theme was imagery of the sick being cared for in various facilities ranging from the homes and monasteries to the newly devised concept of the ‘hospital.’ Medicine in Art notes that the “hospital compound… apparently evoked lively interest amongst artists in the late Middle Ages.”

Manuscript Illustration Reception and Treatment of the Impoverished Sick in a Monastery Infirmary, 13th century (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris)

Manuscript illustratoin A Medieval Hospital in Aricenna's Canon on Medicine Manuscript, 14th century. (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence)

Miniature illustration of the Sick Ward at the Hotel-Dieu in the Book of the very active life of the nuns of the Hotel-Dieu of Paris (Musee de l'assistance, Paris)

Anonymous Visiting the Sick (15th century) (Church of San Martino, Florence)

Down through the ages, medicine and art have co-mingled and artists have shown an interest in the activities surrounding medical practice. This blog merely ‘touches the tip of the iceberg’ regarding medicine in art, which dates back to antiquity. In the Ancient Egyptian Empire are found portrayals of the God of Medicine and the lesser God of Health and Sickness, Imhotep and Bes, and in Greco-Roman times the dignity bestowed upon medical science is found on fresco wall paintings to ceramic vases.

I will end by bringing Canadian art back into the picture by noting that although there are not many Canadian contributions to the history of medicine in art, we do have a famous figure who was indeed highly involved in both medicine and fine art. Sir Frederick Banting is a famous Canadian doctor and medical scientist who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his co-discovery of insulin and its beneficial uses. He has received numerous honorary degrees, research funding and was Knighted for his services by King George V. However, he is also well known as a skilled painter. He painted alongside Group of Seven members, and his beautiful works of art have a lasting desirability on the market no less than his contemporaries.

Should anyone know of any other Canadian paintings that in some way reference the practice of medicine that you would like to share with us we would love to hear from you.


Sir Frederick Banting Autumn Scene and St. Tite des Caps 1937 oils on board

(Past Highlights sold at Masters Gallery, Calgary)