Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Illness or intoxication? Diagnosing a French clown 

Sally Metzler
Chicago, Illinois, USA


In his day, Thomas Couture was a renowned history painter, though his students would later surpass him in fame—the likes of Edouard Manet and John Lafarge. Born in the small French town of Senlis, his parents moved to Paris when he was a child so he could study art. He attended there the École des Beaux-Arts, and after repeated attempts to win the Prix de Rome (which according to Couture was not his lack of talent, but the ignorance of the Academy!), he finally met with success, receiving the prize in 1837 and subsequent large mural commissions. Rebellious by nature, he opened his own school of art, pitted against the reigning academic forces in Paris. After one particularly harsh critique, he retreated to his hometown of Senlis.

This charming painting showcases not only Couture’s artistic acumen, but also his biting wit—in this instance assailing the medical professionIn The Illness of Pierrot, a foppish physician attends to his pale and wan patient Pierrot, assiduously taking his pulse. A maid stands by with sick-bed accoutrements while in the background the Harlequin is inconsolable. Will the tragic Pierrot live?  The doctor fails to notice the four empty bottles of wine scattered about the floor.  Thus the diagnosis is quite simple: intoxication and gluttony. However, the doctor is unaware, as emphasized by the witty French epitaph inscribed on the upper left wall: “Science makes the doctor see what is not and prevents him from seeing what is obvious to everyone.”

Thomas Couture (1815-1879). The Illness of Pierrot, ca. 1859
The Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City MO


SALLY METZLER, PhD, is the director of the art collection at the Union League Club in Chicago.


Fall 2018  |  Sections  |  Art Flashes

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