Medicine in Art

Medicine in Art
Detail from The Sick Valentine Gode-Darel by Ferdinand Hodler
Oil on canvas (1914)
Kunstmuseum Solothurn (Switzerland)

Last month, after taking in the small exhibit of paintings from the Mauritshuis that was in its final days at New York’s Frick Collection (see my post of 19 January), I checked out the museum’s shop.  There, I happened upon a book called Medicine in Art.  I picked it up and, before even opening it, sensed that I was going to buy it.  It’s not a large book–measuring just 5 3/8 inches by 7 7/8 inches–but it’s extremely dense and when I felt the heft I knew it was printed on high quality paper and would likely have excellent reproductions of the art works chosen for inclusion.  And indeed it does.

The book, by Giorgio Bordin and Laura Polo D’Ambrosio, was originally published in Italian, in 2009, as La Medicina, and was part of a series called I Dizionari dell’Arte.  It was published in the U.S. in 2010 (translation by Jay Hyams) by the J. Paul Getty Musuem in Los Angeles.

The volume has ten chapters, each devoted to an aspect of medicine: The Invalid, Disease, Mental Illness, Care, Places of Care, Medicine, Physician, Suffering, Healing, and the The Human Dimension of Illness.  And it’s packed with images: of paintings, drawings, etchings, pieces of sculpture, Egyptian stele, carvings of wood and of ivory, photos of noteworthy buildings, even stills from movies.

Once I was back home, the first chapter I decided to explore in detail was the next to last one, “Healing”; the chapter’s first subsection, “Anticipation and Hope”, was introduced by a quote from the German artist Gerhard Richter: “Art is the highest form of hope.”    One of the paintings included in this section is Frau am Fenster (Woman at the Window), by Caspar David Friedrich.  Although I’m a fan of Friedrich, I hadn’t been familiar with this particular work; I love the bright sky, the soft greens of the trees, the deeper greens of the woman’s dress and the room’s walls, the amber and brown liquids in the bottles that sit on the window sill to the woman’s right.  And because her back is to me–not unusual in Friedrich–I share her view and, perhaps, her thoughts as well.  I imagine she wishes she could step out of the rather gloomy chamber she’s currently in, and into the sunny landscape that beckons.

I immediately understood the authors’ decision to include this particular painting in the section dedicated to depictions of anticipation and hope.  Those are sensations I often have when viewing Friedrich’s work. In a post I made in August about my favorite of his paintings, I noted that “It makes me feel hopeful, and fills me with a sense of possibility.”

This painting does the same thing.

Woman at the Window 1822 Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin
Woman at the Window
Oil on canvas (1822)
Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

Happy Birthday to DBS, another seeker of beauty in the world.


  • Jeanne, I love to read your writings about art, I feel like I am learning something and they remind me to look at pictures in a new way – the colors, the light, how the picture makes me feel. Thank you!


  • Interesting book. Had you noticed that the woman at the window appears to be looking at a passing sailboat? Note the rigging and mast. Look at the way her head is cocked to the right as the boat sails by, as though she were looking for someone…


    • Thank you for stopping by, Charlotte. Yes, I had noted the masts and riggings of sailboats! Perhaps what she’s hoping for is to sail away from whatever drudgery binds her to that gloomy room….


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