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Dissertation Abstract

Richard E. Weisberg, “The Representation of Doctors at Work
in Salon Art of the Early Third Republic in France”
(New York University dissertation, 1995)




This dissertation examines changes in the way doctors were portrayed in oil paintings exhibited at the Paris Salon during the first decades of the Third French Republic.  The most common “medical” subject in oil paintings was the doctor’s portrait.  Through most of the nineteenth century, these were conventional portraits.  In the mid-1880s, a new type began to be exhibited.  The doctors in them were the elite of their profession and at the forefront of Parisian medical science.  The portraits now showed them performing new operations (e.g. Edmond Delorme’s decortication of the lungs), utilizing medical instruments they had invented or introduced (e.g. Jules Pean’s hemostatic clamps or Georges Chicotot’s X-ray treatment of cancer), demonstrating medical theories which had become associated with them (e.g. Charcot’s demonstration of hysteria), or even experimenting with new medicines (e.g. Roux’s diphtheria vaccine at the Trousseau Hospital).


At the same time, several conflicts were taking place within the medical profession: among various medical elites or between them and the ordinary practitioners.  Although leading medical practitioners could enhance their status by showing themselves as scientists, ordinary practitioners sought a different image—that of the compassionate healer at the patient’s bedside. Genre paintings of medical scenes fit their ideology.


The Salon of 1886 was a turning point.  It was the first Salon following Louis Pasteur’s successful demonstration of the rabies vaccine and three different portraits of him were exhibited that year.  The general critical opinion was that Albert Edelfelt’s portrait, which showed Pasteur at work in his laboratory, was far superior to Leon Bonnat’s conventional depiction of him.  Edelfelt wrote to his mother that the other young artists told him how much they preferred his portrait and that they believed it showed the real Pasteur.  In the following years, these artists followed Edelfelt’s example rather than the traditional style.  A survey of the Salon reviews indicates that critics saw that these paintings constituted a related group.


The governments of both the Third Republic and the City of Paris championed scientific progress.  The new portraits were commissioned as decorations for many of the public buildings that were being constructed in the capital.  These paintings represent the intersection of goals of three distinct groups: elite medical men who believed that maintaining a professional monopoly required one to be seen in the forefront of medical progress, academically trained artists who wanted to paint modern subjects rather than mythological or biblical theme, and the republican government who wished to advertise its connection to progress and reform.


Two Notes to Readers of the Dissertation

One important virtue of this work may be noted here.  Richard, knowing that “the dissertation is not the book,” gave far more lengthy quotations from primary sources than would have been included in a published book.  Readers without ready access to microfilms of old French newspapers will surely appreciate this particular generosity.


The scans on this site show the dissertation exactly as printed on paper in 1995, and no attempt has been made to correct or improve the text.  Readers should be aware that in a few places pages inserted late in the typing result in paginations something like this: 276, 276a, 276b, 277.  French accents are not always entered correctly.  Typos though rare, are present, including in some of the personal names.  There is some unintentional overlap of text between Chapter 5 and 6, possibly due to an accidental use of “copy and paste” rather than “cut and paste.”

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