"Pathological Exhibition at the Royal Academy (Noticed by our Surgical Advisor)." Punch 19 (18 May 1850), 198.

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The Painter has hitherto done little for Medicine but hold its professors up to ridicule. This year, however, our science has received a tribute in the picture No. 518 [Christ in the House of His Parents], at the Royal Academy’s Exhibition. The interest of this work is purely pathological; the figures in it being simply illustration of the scrofulous or strumous diathesis. Their emaciated bodies, their shrunken legs, and tumid ancles, are the well-known characteristics of that morbid state of system. The incipient œdema of the lower extremities is faithfully portrayed; though in connection with this symptom, which indicates far-gone disease, the abdominal tension might have been more strongly marked. The boy, advancing with the bowl of water, exemplifies a splendid case of rhachitis, or rickets; and the osteological distortions of his frame have been correctly copied from the skeleton. The child in the centre is expressively represented with the red hair, light eyebrows, and mottled complexion, which betoken the extreme of struma. The female figure kissing it, apparently its mother, is endowed by the artist with the same peculiarities, in accordance with the laws of hereditary transmission. With a nice discernment, too, the squalid filth for which the whole group is remarkable, is associated with a disorder notoriously connected with dirt. The drawing of the figures evinces minute study in the demonstration-room.

To render the phenomena of morbid anatomy is clearly the specialty of the artist. His talent for exact imitation, properly applied, might preserve for us many specimens which we vainly endeavour to keep in spirits. The productions of his pencil, thus directed, would eclipse everything in Baillière’s shop-window; but he should limit himself to the strictly human subject. No. 518 has no title; but subjoined to it there is a text suggesting that it is meant for the Holy Family. Now the persons depic ed [sic] in it seem to be mere portraits, taken from life at the Orthopœdic Institution. Though interesting to the eye of medicine, to the non-professional beholder they are unpleasant–not to say, revolting. They appear to savour, as has been intimated, of an unacquaintance with soap and water much at variance with the maxim which adjoins cleanliness to sanctity. Scrofula, moreover, is a Northern disease; and its antecedents, besides nastiness, are irregularities in living. The figures in question are so many examples of the consequences of transgressing the laws of health. The genius requisite for "High Art" should include some creative power, sense of beauty, and perception of congruities and incongruities. It will be a pity if this gentleman does not turn his abilities–which, in the mechanical way, are great–to the illustration of Cooper’s Surgical Dictionary; and leave the Testament alone.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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