Gervex, Henri (French, 1852-1929)

Before the Operation, also called Dr Pean Teaching His Discovery of the Compression of Blood Vessels at St Louis Hospital

Reference Type:
This painting has sometimes been compared to Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, with the doctor teaching his assistants and pupils. The surgical instruments laid out in the left foreground reflect scientific progress. Reaction to the relationship of the men to the exposed and sensually represented female patient, with flowing hair and prominent breasts, varies according to the viewer’s background and experience. On the one hand, when compared with Thomas Eakins’ The Agnew Clinic, this work reminds us of the ways in which medicine modulates and mitigates the potentially erotic in the doctor/patient relationship through draping, the presence of the nurse, and the staging of the examining space. On the other hand, whereas a representation such as this might not have been deemed appropriate in late-nineteenth-century America, in France it was unlikely to have experienced any repercussions. Henri Gervex had, however, managed to insult French morality earlier in his career with a painting that was rejected for the annual government exhibition because it was too outrageously decadent (the image, based on a poem by French Romantic poet Alfred de Musset, showed a naked prostitute having sex with her client). After that, he started representing modern life and received commissions for public building decoration and official paintings. Jules-Emile Pean (1830-1898) was a very well-known French surgeon of the nineteenth century; although he was an advocate of hygiene, he disputed the discoveries of Pasteur. He was considered the first to succeed in surgical ablation of one cyst in the ovary in 1864, seen as a pioneer in vaginal hysterectomy for carcinoma in 1890, and is thought to have done the first surgery to correct diverticula of the bladder. He also attempted the first known joint replacement, a shoulder, which had to be removed two years later because of infection. He also invented a hemostat that is still used today. Notes by Dr. Linda Pessar and Mariann Smith
Art of Medicine
History of Medicine
Musee d'Orsay, Paris