Until the middle of the nineteenth century, science and scientists were unusual themes for paintings. Then, when sciences captured the imagination of many non-scientists, they flourished. In this and the next two articles in this series, I show a selection of paintings which are inspired by different kinds of science. Today’s are science in general, tomorrow’s are technology, and next week I’ll show some celebrating advances in medicine.
Many artists of the late nineteenth century embraced the Positivist philosophy of the day, expounded by the likes of Hippolyte Taine and Émile Zola, and linked to more general changes occurring in science and technology. One of the leading scientists and thinkers of the time was the French physiologist Claude Bernard (1813-1878), whose books were read avidly by Zola and Naturalist artists. It may seem strange that non-scientists should read a book like Bernard’s Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865), but in it Bernard expressed his views on much more than just physiology.
Following Bernard’s death, the Sorbonne (where he had taught) commissioned Léon Lhermitte to paint his portrait in 1886. Sadly I’ve been unable to trace an image of the original, but Claude Bernard and His Pupils is a faithful copy of the painting that Lhermitte exhibited at the Salon in 1889.
Bernard stressed the importance of not just observational science, but the experimental too, which inspired the Naturalists to pursue in the arts what they saw as the experimental approach. Zola observed people in life, filling notebooks with his observations of them. He set his characters up in the scenario for a novel, and they behaved according to his observations. He then documented this imaginary experiment, which became his next novel.
Lhermitte’s painting shows Bernard in the midst of performing an experiment on a rabbit, his students discussing its results, and one writing the experimental observations in the laboratory daybook.
This carefully-chosen composition is the single most explicit link between Bernard’s science and Naturalism in art. As such, it explains how much of the Naturalist painting, between about 1880 (some earlier) and the early twentieth century, came about.
Lhermitte’s explanations for Naturalism go beyond even that. His painting of The Chemist Henri-Étienne Sainte-Claire Deville, Lesson on Aluminium from the following year, also commissioned by the Sorbonne in Paris, links the movement with science and technology more generally. I apologise for the poor size and quality of this image, which is the only one that I have been able to locate.
Henri-Étienne Sainte-Claire Deville (1818-1881) was responsible for many significant discoveries in chemistry, the most important of which was a method for the industrial manufacture of aluminium. He is shown here surrounded by objects made from this new material, which quickly came to transform manufacturing, and to invade every home.
Several Naturalist painters were commissioned to paint murals depicting scientific events for universities. Among them is Erik Henningsen’s The Nordic Natural Science Research Meeting 14 July 1847, completed in 1895 for the Aula of the University of Copenhagen. Presiding over this scientific meeting was the great Danish physicist and chemist Hans Christian Ørsted, who was nearly seventy at the time.
During the early part of his career, the great Spanish master Joaquín Sorolla was also a Naturalist, and painted themes based on science.
Sorolla’s Portrait of Dr. Simarro at the Microscope from 1897 shows Doctor Luis Simarro Lacabra (1851-1921), who was an eminent psychiatrist in Madrid. He also undertook pioneering research looking at the fine structure of the brain. Among his many achievements was a modification of an established technique for staining microscopic sections of brain, which proved a major advance and an inspiration to the great Spanish neurohistologist Ramon y Cajal. This portrait was exhibited at the National Exhibition in Madrid in the same year.
Research, or under its original Spanish title of Una investigación o El Dr. Simarro en el Laboratorio, from the same year, goes on to look at Dr. Simarro at work in the laboratory among colleagues and students. He is here preparing specimens for microscopy, presumably using his staining technique. The table is covered with bottles of chemicals used in that process, and the chunky metal object in the centre foreground is a microtome, used for cutting very thin sections of tissue embedded in paraffin wax, prior to their staining, for study under the microscope.
Most of the pioneering studies of the brain and retina were based on drawings of what the researcher saw down the microscope. Among the most important of those neuroscientists, who made many of the most exquisitely beautiful drawings, was Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934). The son of a teacher of anatomy in Navarre, in Basque Spain, he was a troublesome child, and was shipped from one school to the next, only to cause more trouble, and move on again. At one time, he even fired a cannon in his back garden, which must have set the whole neighbourhood against him. Ramón y Cajal wanted to be an artist, but his father finally managed to interest him in anatomical drawing. He went on to study medicine at the University of Zaragoza, and eventually became the founding father of modern neuroanatomy, and more.
It was he who discovered the fine structure of the human retina, crucial information for our understanding of the sense of sight. It seems very appropriate that a scientist who wanted to paint but ended up spending so much of his life drawing should have played such as key role in understanding this sense. And as always, it was his painstaking draughtmanship which showed to others what he had seen under his microscope.
Ramón y Cajal’s portrait was painted at least three times during his life: two of those paintings show him in his mid-fifties, at the height of his career.
Joaquín Sorolla’s shows him in what I think is an academic gown rather than a cloak. On the wall behind is one of Ramón y Cajal’s neuroanatomical drawings, looking like a work of art. But the great scientist looks old, care-worn, and tired.
Given that Ramón y Cajal worked almost up to the day of his death in 1934, I can’t help thinking that Ricardo de Madrazo’s portrait appears more fair. He is seen at work, looking into the microscope with which he must have spent so many long days studying slides of brains, drawing every finest detail, hour after hour.