In Hospital: 2, Light

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Dormitory in the Hospital in Arles (1889), oil on canvas, 74 x 92 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In the late nineteenth century, hospitals were transformed by the nursing revolution, the use of general anaesthesia for surgery, scientific advances in medicine, and more. So too were paintings of hospitals.

Jean Geoffroy (1853-1924), Visiting Day at the Hospital (1889), oil on canvas, 120 x 95 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the first painting of what we’d recognise as a modern hospital, Jean Geoffroy’s Visiting Day at the Hospital from 1889 is all about light, cleanliness, and the clinical. Like other Naturalist paintings of the time, it also fitted in very neatly with the Third Republic’s image of modernising, by applying the latest developments of science to the improvement of life, and illness.

The boy’s father is clearly not rich, and he could never have afforded state-of-the-art care for his sick son. But this clinical atmosphere is not inhuman, as shown by the mother kissing her son in the next bed along. What the painting doesn’t reveal is that, in all likelihood, the boy in the foreground bed is dying of tuberculosis, a problem which even the Third Republic seemed powerless to prevent.

Luis Jiménez Aranda (1845-1928), Doctors’ Rounds in the Hospital Ward (1889), oil on canvas, 290 x 445 cm, Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla, Seville, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

The hospital building shown in Luis Jiménez Aranda’s painting of Doctors’ Rounds in the Hospital Ward from the same year is not as modern, but its sheets are almost as white. Here, the large and august team of physicians, no doubt with their trainees too, is examining a patient’s chest during a ward round.

There is a subtle detail here: the senior physician is bent down, with his left ear applied to the back of the patient’s chest. Today, that act of auscultation would be performed using a stethoscope, almost a badge of office for medical practitioners around the world. The stethoscope was still relatively novel in 1889: simple monaural tubes were first used by Laënnec in 1816, but the modern binaural design didn’t really evolve until the late 1800s, and an older physician may still have preferred to apply their ear directly to the patient, as shown here.

In the same year, Vincent van Gogh was admitted to a mental hospital at Arles, France, and painted a series of works showing the modernised asylum, and its evolution from Hogarth’s image of Bedlam.

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Dormitory in the Hospital in Arles (1889), oil on canvas, 74 x 92 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Van Gogh’s Dormitory in the Hospital in Arles (1889) shows how, despite their improvement, mental hospitals were still a long way behind modern general hospitals. In the foreground is a stove very similar to that seen in Florence Nightingale’s wards in Scutari, and the carers are members of a religious order rather than specialist nurses in mental health.

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Corridor in the Asylum (1889), oil color and essence over black chalk on pink laid (Ingres) paper, 65.1 x 49.1 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Mental hospitals were to remain huge and forbidding places for the next century. Van Gogh captures this in his stark view of a Corridor in the Asylum (1889).

Anna Sahlstén (1859–1931), Surgery in hospital (c 1893), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, EMMA – Espoon modernin taiteen museo, Espoo, Finland. Wikimedia Commons.

Anna Sahlstén’s Surgery in Hospital from about 1893 continues the theme of the modern hospital. I’m not sure whether Sahlstén painted this in Finland, her native country, or when abroad in Berlin or Paris. The dazzling whiteness of sheets has been tempered in this children’s ward with light touches of colour. In the foreground, a mother cuddles her infant, and at the back of the ward a smart professional nurse is caring for another of the younger patients.

On the wall is a large radiator for the hospital’s heating system, which has replaced the old stoves seen at Scutari.

Karel Myslbek (1874–1915), In Hospital (1910), oil, 154 x 128 cm, Národní galerie v Praze, Prague, The Czech Republic. Wikimedia Commons.

According to Karel Myslbek’s In Hospital from 1910, the modern hospital wasn’t universal experience, though.

Nikolay Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky (1868-1945), At the Hospital (c 1910), further details not known. The Athenaeum.

In one of his loosest and most sketchy works, Nikolay Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky dazzles with white and light in At the Hospital from about 1910. The nurse is taking a patient’s pulse. Unusually, this hospital’s windows are open wide to the countryside beyond, and there is a large vase of flowers at the right.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Hospital at Granada (1912), oil on canvas, 55.9 x 71.1 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. The Athenaeum.

Some hospitals remained more traditional in their appearance. John Singer Sargent’s oil painting of a Hospital at Granada in 1912 shows the sick scattered haphazardly outside the wards and clinics, apparently awaiting medical attention.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Interior of a Hospital Tent (1918), watercolour over pencil on paper, 39.4 x 52.7 cm, Imperial War Museums, London. The Athenaeum.

When he was a war artist, Sargent painted scenes in military medical facilities, including this watercolour of the Interior of a Hospital Tent in 1918. Although makeshift and temporary, this appears more orderly and modern than the hospital in Granada.

Before Sargent’s birth, his father had been an eye surgeon in Philadelphia, and the artist may have had more insight into the medical world and hospitals. Few artists, though, could match the experience of Henry Tonks, who trained and practised as a surgeon until he was appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art in London at the age of thirty.

Henry Tonks (1862-1937), Saline Infusion: An incident in the British Red Cross Hospital, Arc-en-Barrois, 1915 (1915), pastel, 67.9 x 52 cm, The Imperial War Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons.

When war broke out in 1914, Tonks returned to medicine, first in England, then the following year he served as a medical orderly on the Marne, in France, where he used his pastels to paint Saline Infusion: An incident in the British Red Cross Hospital, Arc-en-Barrois, 1915.

Saline intravenous infusions were still relatively novel at that time, and war surgery was busy re-learning many of the lessons of the past. Tonks preserved the anonymity of his models although his drawing is otherwise anatomically precise – as would be expected of a former teacher of anatomy. The doctor seated at the right is inserting the cannula for the infusion, a delicate task which would have been unfamiliar at the time, and an early step in the growth of technological medicine.

Norah Neilson-Gray (1882-1931), The Scottish Women’s Hospital : In The Cloister of the Abbaye at Royaumont. Dr. Frances Ivens inspecting a French patient (1920), oil, 114.3 x 138.7 cm, Imperial War Museums, London. Wikimedia Commons.

My final painting of a hospital is by one of the ‘Glasgow Girls’, who volunteered to work as a nurse in France during the First World War. Norah Neilson Gray’s The Scottish Women’s Hospital : In The Cloister of the Abbaye at Royaumont. Dr. Frances Ivens inspecting a French patient from 1920 shows a scene in an ancient abbey just outside Paris, where the artist was caring for some of the many casualties of that war.

These vaulted cloisters are older than any other hospital I have shown in these two articles, and some of its dress – the young woman in the centre foreground – the most contemporary. On the left are patients in modern hospital beds, being cared for by professional clinical staff, including nurses and doctors. At the right is a small group of military personnel, a visual link to the the cause of the patients’ injuries, which underlines this very modern trend in hospitals – of treating injuries inflicted by people on their fellow humans.