Rare surgeon portrait acquired by Wellcome Library
Press release / Published: 18 May 2011
The Wellcome Library in London has added to its collection of drawings with the acquisition of a magnificent portrait drawing of the French surgeon Ange-Bernard Imbert-Delonnes (1747-1818) by Pierre Chasselat - a portrait with a distinctive feature.
The drawing is unusual in that in addition to its more conventional features, the minutely detailed interior includes, on the right, a gruesome souvenir of Imbert Delonnes's proudest achievement: a gigantic testicular tumour (sarcocele) which - in a controversial operation - Imbert-Delonnes removed from Charles-François Delacroix, the French foreign minister.
The drawing in black chalk is signed by the artist and dated "L'an 8" (year 8 in the French Revolutionary calendar, meaning 1799-1800). The portrait itself, and the identity of the man portrayed, were discovered by the firm of Didier Aaron, from whom the drawing has been purchased by the Wellcome Library with the aid of grants from the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Art Fund.
The drawing is both a work of art and a historical document. In accordance with Imbert-Delonnes's self-image, it shows him sitting in a lordly pose in a fashionable interior at the dawn of the Empire period. In his professional life, he was a fearless and forceful surgeon who made his name in the French Army serving under Napoleon at the battle of Marengo (1800). In the drawing, he is holding his pen as if putting the finishing touches to a manuscript of the "Progress of the art of healing". The operation on Delacroix proceeded despite seven of his eight medical advisers counselling against touching the tumour, which weighed some 28 pounds.
The seemingly incongruous display of excised body-parts on a plinth in an elegant interior makes the drawing a vivid witness to the sensibility of the surgical elite of the time - and the sarcocele has its own subplot.
Its unwilling owner, Charles-François Delacroix, was nominally the father of the painter Eugène Delacroix, although he was almost certainly not his biological father, owing to this very tumour. Eugène Delacroix's biological father was reputed to be Charles-François Delacroix's successor as French foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, to whom Eugène bore a strong physical resemblance.
Simon Chaplin, Head of Wellcome Library, says: "This extraordinary drawing is an outstanding addition to the Wellcome Library's collection of medical portraits. Like a general surrounded by the trophies of battle, the depiction of Imbert-Delonnes' reminds us of an age when every operation was an ordeal for the patient, and every success a triumph for the surgeon."
Ludmilla Jordanova, Professor of Modern History at King's College London, says: "For centuries medical practitioners have been interested in portraiture; they have commissioned and collected, bought and sold, displayed and reproduced many important works of historical and aesthetic interest. Portraits shaped and disseminated professional identities; they often resulted from significant collaborations between artists and sitters. This gorgeous portrait is a major acquisition for the Wellcome Library, not least in extending its holdings of portraits of French practitioners. Although the role that portraits have long played in constructing the image of medical practitioners is well known, its detailed, scholarly study is still young. This portrait will provide historians with rich food for thought, especially concerning the status of surgeons in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods."
The Wellcome Library is situated in the Wellcome Collection building and is open to the public free of charge. The drawing may be seen in the Library's Rare Materials Room.
Further information about the drawing can be found at its entry in the Library catalogue.