Picasso’s glimpse into humanistic medicine

“Science and Charity” Pablo Picasso (1897)

This past summer as I backpacked through Europe, I stumbled into the Museu Picasso, nestled in the tortuous La Ribera section of Barcelona, Spain. The museum, which feels more like a medieval Spanish villa, was supported by the late artist, and contains many of his early academic pieces.

Picasso first arrived in Barcelona in 1894, and his monumental painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” is based on a brothel on Carrer d’Avinyó, a street in Barcelona. I was quite taken back by Picasso’s early mastery of the academic style of painting. However, one painting stood out, “Science and Charity.”

“Science and Charity” is a substantial canvas, 6.5ft x 8.2ft, and Picasso painted this piece at age 15. The composition is insightful into late 19th century medicine in Spain. We see a patient lying ill in a room, eyes closed, on a bed. A nun is at the bedside delivering tea or medicine, holding a child, presumably the patient’s. On the opposite side, we see the physician: Picasso’s father served as the model. The physician has a stern look, and is taking the patient’s pulse, holding her left wrist and looking at his pocket watch.

Picasso is introducing us to the humanistic side of medicine prevalent in the 19th century, before the prevailing use medical imaging and laboratory diagnostics. The severity of the patient’s condition is unknown, although the lighting on her left hand suggests something serious. We can see the physician with his hand extended on the patient’s wrist, symbolizing a reassuring warmth, care and concern for the patient. The competent look upon the physician’s face, covered by a thick, hearty beard, appears to comfort the nun and child, who look very calm. The physician affects the mode of all those in the scene, and his effect is soothing and confident.

Looking at this painting reminds me of a time when physicians not only took house calls, but were a highly respected pillar of society. While many physicians today may not take house calls, it is important to remember how significant our role is to society. We are endowed with the knowledge and responsibility to heal. This past month, I, along with other first year students, began our preceptorship with physicians in the Newark region. It has been a humbling experience thus far into patient-centered medicine. Picasso’s portrayal of the physician encourages me to aspire to be like the doctor in the painting, caring and confident. The ability to forget why we study and work so rigorously for our patients should not overshadow the primal desire to help people feel better.

Staring at this painting before my eyes, during the beginning of my adventures through Europe, left an immeasurable impression. I still recall the day I stood in Picasso’s museum, turning the corner into another vaulted gallery, and witnessing this painting hanging securely on the wall. Picasso may have been younger than me, but I understand his message.

Michael Chorney is a medical student at NJMS.

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