Impressionistic Medicine

The Danish impressionistic artist Camille Pissarro lived most of his adult life in France. During his long tenure as a painter, Pissarro gleaned much from Corot, Courbet and Jean-François Millet, forerunners of the Impressionist school. Many other artists worked under his tutelage, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Seurat among them. Eventually, Pissarro came to be regarded as the father of French Impressionism, the only artist to exhibit his work in all seven Impressionistic salons over the last quarter of the 19th century.

More than a mere painter, Pissarro was an anarchist, whose radically egalitarian views found their way into his work. For his subjects Pissarro chose rural peasants, depicting them at work in the fields, as domestic servants, as buyers and sellers in the market place.

In the 1880s, Pissarro assembled a portfolio of 30 pen and ink sketches rendering the horrors of urban capitalism entitled “Turpitudes Sociales” (“Social Disgraces”). He used his art to draw public attention to the injustices inherent in what he saw as an unethical and immoral social order of his day.

Throughout his life Pissarro envisioned a kinder, gentler society, one where people have what they need in order to live a good life — and no more. He put his ethics into practice, opening his home to all visitors, including young hungry artists.

One could not wander through the recent Clark Institute’s Pissarro’s People exhibit without admiring the canvases depicting bucolic scenes peopled with peasants engaged in work and talk. Pissarro’s vision becomes contagious to a visitor immersed in such beauty and grace.

While standing in front of one of his portraits, I — as a practitioner of another form of art, the art of medicine — could not help but think that we clinicians are called to view those patients entrusted to our care as equals in the sense of their humanity, their needs and wants.

Osler summed it up when he wrote: “Dealing as we do with poor suffering humanity, we see the man unmasked, exposed to all the frailties and weaknesses, and you have to keep your heart soft and tender lest you have too great a contempt for your fellow creatures.”

I have learned much from looking at the world through Pissarro’s eyes. Collectively, his canvasses could be considered windows through which one glimpses the art of impressionistic medicine.

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2 comments on “Impressionistic Medicine

  1. td says:

    Given Pissaro’s time and place in History, it’s no wonder he viewed life as he did … “Pissarro envisioned a kinder, gentler society, one where people have what they need in order to live a good life — and no more.”

    This was the altruistic Communist / Christian ideal that Humans have always wanted to be true, but could never achieve.

    Apparently our genetic flaws will kill us all, if planetary disasters don’t beat us to the punch.

    In between, a few compassionate folks will do the best they can to ease the peasants suffering.

  2. DJE says:

    Fine piece. Too bad the Pissarro exhibit is over. You essay is a great introduction to it. If is wasn’t raining, you might have missed it — this weekend, it would be hard to stay cooped up in a museum. Cheers,

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