Art and medicine share the comely burden of having many great minds. Open any medical textbook, and the list of diseases and techniques named for their discoverer seems endless. The implication is for some achievements by physicians, and artists, to sink well below the surface of common knowledge. Two men, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Dr. Jules-Émile Péan, whose paths met briefly, highlight the unique product of their encounter.
Many know Toulouse-Lautrec (hereafter Lautrec) for his romps at the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre. His advertisements for the Parisian cabaret led him, and the club, to international fame. However, if you were to travel back to the golden bohemian times of Montmartre, you may be surprised by Lautrec’s short stature. Lautrec suffered from dwarfism, a medical rarity at the time: although his family believed his stature was caused by a childhood accident.
Dr. Jules Émile Péan was a distinguished French surgeon during the late 19th century. He is credited with the invention of the hemostat, a ubiquitous medical instrument used even today to clamp arteries and veins. Often noted as the founder of modern gynecology, he was the first to successfully remove an ovarian cyst (1864) and pioneered vaginal hysterectomies (1890). He received the Legion of Honor in 1890. After his death in 1896, the New York Times even published his obituary.
How do these two men connect? Dr. Gabriel Tapié
Dr. Gabriel Tapié was Lautrec’s first cousin, and assistant to Dr. Péan. This is known through an interview with Edgar Degas.
“The adjoining room had been transformed into a hospital, where we were looked after by [Lautrec’s] cousin, Dr. Tapie de Celeyran, the assistant of the noted surgeon, Dr. Péan, who used to operate in a frock-coat, and invented the forceps that were named after him.”
The introduction between Péan and Lautrec was certainly the work of Tapié. In 1891, Lautrec produces the work titled “Une Opération de Trachéotomie” after several preliminary sketches of Dr. Péan.
The image depicts Dr. Péan wearing a white towel around his neck, no doubt to protect himself from blood splatters. Curiously, the good doctor is inserting an instrument into the patient’s mouth, which anyone would recognize as the wrong location to begin a tracheotomy. Judging by the patient’s enlarged neck, it is possible Péan wanted to inspect the airway before beginning the procedure to identify any enlargement of tonsils. The tongue appears to be displaced to the right, indicating possible salivary gland complications. There is also an assistant with his back to the viewer. Could this be Dr. Tapié?
The most fascinating aspect of this work is the simplicity in line and color, as a result of the incomplete nature of the piece. This seems odd for someone as important as Dr. Péan. Lautrec uses very broad strokes, defining just enough to let the viewer see the procedure. The effect leaves the viewer guessing what Lautrec intended to expand in his portrait of the doctor. In the background there seems to be a vague profile curiously wanting to observe the procedure, but they are not well defined enough to even distinguish an identity. The assistant’s torso is outlined, and Dr. Péan, with his beard, seems more focused on his procedure to care about anything else!
Lautrec allows the viewer not just a glimpse into medicine of the late 19th century, but a look into his style. The viewer can engage with Lautrec, imposing their ideas about the direction the work could go. All the while, Dr. Péan meticulously cares for his patient.
Georges-Michel, Michel. From Renoir to Picasso; Artists in Action. Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 1957. Print.
“Jules-Émile Péan.” Wikipedia. Web. 4 Mar. 2012. \
Rousselot, Jean. Medicine in Art. 1st ed. Milan: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Print.
P.S. Dr. Péan was no stranger to the canvas. He was famously painted by Henri Gervex in 1887 during his inventing of the hemostat. See it here! Also, Lautrec did not forget about his cousin, whom he painted many times.