Rubens and the art of observation: a dying clinical skill?

Peter Paul Rubens. Helene Fourment in a fur wrap (Het Pelsken). c.1635. Oil on panel, 176x83 cm. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Do you ever really look at your patients? I mean really, really, look, so carefully that you’re in danger of making both of you feel uncomfortable? And if you do, do you look with the eye of a medic, seeking to confirm or rule out certain features, or do you look-as an artist might look- with an innocent eye, open to all possibilities and closed to none?

If, like me, you take it for granted that artists have always been better than the average person at seeing what’s actually there, rather than what they are expecting to see, then  you might be surprised to read a recent paper in Medical Humanities by Abastado and Chemla which suggests otherwise.

According to Abastado and Chemla, prior to the mid-17th century Western representations of the human body were constrained by conventions as rigid as any governing the practice of medicine. These conventions meant that some things, whether actually observed by the artist or not, would and indeed could not feature in the artist’s work. In their fascinating paper, Abastado and Chemla identify two paintings by Rubens where these conventions break down, describing one of the paintings as perhaps “one of the first portraits of a body in the history of European painting.”

If you’re interested in how clinicians can learn to be better observers then you might like this paper I published in Medical Education back in 2007. Because if you look, and I mean really look, you just never know what you might see.

Medical Humanities

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