17th Century Art on Medicine: The Candlelight Master


A Doctor Examining Urine. The first half of 17th century.  (Image via Wikimedia Commons)



The Candlelight Master was an unknown  French, Italian or Northern European artist who worked in Rome from 1620 to 1634 (and possibly later). His paintings were attributed to famous contemporaries, such as Gerrit van Hoonthorst, Matthias Stomer, and George de La Tour. Researchers have tried to equate him with representatives of the dynasty of the Bigot painters from Aix-en-Provence  –  Trophime Bigot the Elder and Trophime Bigot the Younger, as well as with the Italian artist Master Giacomo (or Giacomo Massa).

Different art historians credit the Master of Candlelight with up to 50 different paintings, which are now part of the collections of major European and American museums, as well as private collections.

The main feature of his paintings is a religious or everyday scene illuminated by the candlelight that makes it stark and striking.

The Master of Candlelight did not paint scientists on purpose, but in the context of this blog he is interesting because of his painting «A Doctor Examining Urine». On the painting, we see a bearded middle-aged man with the lined brow. The doctor looks at us while holding a transparent vessel filled with a cloudy liquid.  In the bottom left corner, you can see the container for the vessel carrying made of some material akin to birch bark,  then the candlestick,  a folded sheet of paper and inkpot with writing feather.

Introduced by Ancient Greek physician and father of Western medicine Hippocrates urine examination is one of the few diagnostic methods that are still in use today. The pre-modern doctors looked at urine and by its state tried to diagnose a disease. For example, cloudy urine was an indication of kidney problems (now we know that diseased kidneys leak protein into urine). The urine that attracted flies due to sugar accumulation was a sign of diabetes (not that they could do anything about it, except informing relatives that they need to prepare for the inevitable).

The urine on the painting looks cloudy, the patient is probably in trouble.


An Iron Forge (1772) by  Joseph Write of Derby. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s interesting to compare this painting with those of science and industry painter Joseph Write of Derby.  His scientific and industrial scenes also happen during dark hours and have a single light source illuminating a scene. Sometimes (An experiment on a bird in the air pump, Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight) it’s a candle,  but sometimes it’s a flask with phosphorus (Alchemist discovering phosphorus), lamp (A Philosopher by Lamplight) or red-hot iron (An Iron Forge). The time moved both scientifically and in art.


  • Rosenberg, Pierre. Candlelight Master // France in the Golden Age: Seventeenth-century French Paintings in American Collections. — New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982.  ISBN 978-0870-9929-57.
  • Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History// DK (an imprint of the Random House)   —Cambrige, 2016.  ISBN: 978-0241225967.


19th Century Art on Medicine: “Homeopathy looks at the horrors of Allopathy”


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Homeopathy looks at the horrors of Allopathy, by Alexander Beideman (1857) (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

“Homeopathy looks at the horrors of Allopathy” — an allegorical painting by Russian artist Alexander Beideman, painted in 1857.

The allegorical image was created by Alexander Beydeman in Munich in 1857. According to the homeopath Nicholas Gabrilovich, the painting was commissioned by his father, Eugene Gabrilowitsch, who at that time studied in Munich.

“The positive pole of the scene” is located in the right part of the picture. In the background an allegory of soaring in the clouds Homeopathy. In front of her in a red cloak,  the god of medicine Aesculapius holding a symbol of medicine snake in the right hand. His left hand raised in anger and indignation. Behind him,  the goddess Athena who protects the sciences and shadowy Jupiter-like figure. At the right edge of the canvas is the German physician Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy. Goddess of Justice is holding a balance and flaming sword in the background. I can only guess who is the winged child with a flame on his head (god of light Apollo?) and I cannot even guess who is the half-hidden woman.

All gods and heroes look with disapproval and indignation at associated with allopathy (modern medicine) “negative pole,” located on the left side of the picture where doctors mistreat a patient. One of them is sawing off the patient’s  leg, two other filling an enormous spoon with the medicine intending to shove it into the patien’d moth. The third MD is prizing the patient’s mouth open to receive the medicine under duress. In the corner, black-clad doctors congregate.

In the foreground, a doctor attaches leeches to the patient lower arm and belly – a popular universal remedy and one of the very few medicines available to pre-modern conventional doctors. The figure of Death is waiting for patient’s demise in the doorway. Patient’s wife sobbing and crying children depicted in the lower left corner.


«The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus» (1771).

Let’s compare the picture with painted a century earlier Joseph Wright’s. Gone is the divine inspiration in form of light beam. It’s replaced by Roman gods and a saint – Homeopathy founder. Gone is the lonely, hermit-like figure of scientist replaced by the group of untrustworthy-looking black-clad group of men. Gone is the uplifting harmony of Enlightenment and it’s replaced by a black and white struggle.

“Homeopathy looks at the horrors of Allopathy” is a blatant propaganda via 19th-century medium – painting.

Note: I used my translation of Russian Wikipedia article by  Adavyd  as a starting point for this post. CC-BY-SA 4.0


  1.  DK (1 September 2016). Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History. Dorling Kindersley Limited. pp. 107–110. ISBN 978-0-241-28715-6.
  2.  Государственная Третьяковская галерея — каталог собрания. 4: Живопись второй половины XIX века, книга 1, А—М. М.: Красная площадь. Я. В. БрукЛ. И. Иовлева. 2001. ISBN 5-900743-56-X.
  3.  Верещагина, Алла Глебовна (1958). “Александр Егорович Бейдеман” (Русское искусство: очерки о жизни и творчестве художников. Середина XIX века. ed.). Москва: Искусство. А. И. Леонов: 275—286.

18th century Art on Science: Joseph Wright’s “An Experiment on a Bird in an Airpump”


“An Experiment on a Bird in an Airpump” (1768). Joseph Wright. 

Unlike his self-explanatory “Alchemist discovering phosphorus,” another painting of Joseph Wright of Derby, “An Experiment on a Bird in an Airpump” (right) is an enigma for a 21st-century viewer. Who are people surrounding the table? Why is the parrot in a glass bowl?

What is an air pump?

I don’t think I need to convince you that air has pressure and you can remove air from a vessel leaving a vacuum – or more likely thin gas – inside. But for people in pre-scientific time air was something indivisible like other elements – fire, earth, and water.

The air pump, which can suck the air out of a vessel, was invented by Otto von Guericke in 1650. One of the lucky first possessors of the air pump was “the first modern chemist” Robert Boyle. You may remember him from Boyle’s Law. Boyle conducted experiments with the pump and published a book about it in 1660. One of the experiments describes air removal effect on a bird:

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20th Century Art on Science: Gustav Klimt on Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence


the_kiss_-_gustav_klimt_-_google_cultural_instituteThe Kiss (on the right) is one of the most frequent pictures in student rooms. Female students that is. The gold, the flowers, the gently undulating figure of a red-haired and pink woman being embraced and kissed by an angular and darker man – what’s not to like?

But the early 20th-century Austrian painter Gustav Klimt wasn’t always a crowd pleaser. In 1899 he won a commission for three paintings for the ceiling of the University of Vienna’s Great Hall. But his depictions of the goddesses of  Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence caused an uproar of university establishment and were never displayed. They were later looted by Nazis and destroyed in by the fire in 1945, so we have only a fragment in colour and black-and-white reproductions of the rest.

Even from the ghost of the paintings, we can see that Klimt combined his strands of his cash-cow ornate female portraits with his post-Great Hall allegorical groups, as in “award-winning” Death and Life. (If you are ever in Vienna, do visit Leopold Museum for Klimt’s works if nothing else. “Death and Life” is mesmerizing, it’s 2m x 2m but feels like five times that.)

Why were his Great Hall paintings called ‘pornography’ and ‘perverted excess”? Not because the educated people at the end of the 19th century didn’t see nude figures on paintings. On the contrary, classical paintings of this period were full of nudes – relaxing in languorous poses, plump and pink. Klimt’s nudes are emaciated, twisted – and have visible pubic hair and genitals, hence  pornography accusation. They also don’t suffer heroically as the heroes of classical paintings do, but depicted being in despair, viscerally – “in excess”.

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H.G. Wells on 19th century Science

First edition cover. Image by Heinemann, via Wikimedia Commons.

I recently re-read The island of Dr. Moreau as a part of Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World course. I’ve read it in a Russian translation as a child, but the only thing I remembered was men made from beasts.  30 years later I had different thoughts and discovered some interesting things about the writer.

Let’s look at the scientists of the novel. It’s narrated by a gentleman of leisure, Prendrick, rescued from a shipwreck by a ship, which apart from the crew, carries some wild animals and a doctor, Montgomery. Montgomery says that he was a medical student in London:

“Sixteen years being bullied by nurses and schoolmasters at their own sweet will; grinding hard at medicine, bad food, shabby lodgings, shabby clothes, shabby vice, a blunder,—I didn’t know any better,—and hustled off to this beastly island”.

And here lies my personal discovery. I think that Montgomery modelled on the H. G. Wells himself. Wells did study in a private school, quite a bad one. He never was a medical student, but  he studied biology under  the famous evolutionist Thomas Huxley, and a biologist is often a medical doctor thwarted in his/her ambition.

After this Wells studied in Royal College of Science Association new school until 1887.  In his Experiment in Autobiography, Wells says about this period that he was constantly  hungry.

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18th Century Art on Science: Joseph Wright’s “Alchemist discovering phosphorus”

Image from Wikimedia Commons

The picture, oil on canvas, by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 – 1797), first  exhibited in 1771 with the original full title of “The Alchymist, in Search of    the Philosopher’s Stone, discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful  conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the ancient chymical  astrologers” (derbymuseums.org, 2014).

Joseph Wright was an English landscape and portrait painter, who was “the  first professional painter to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution”.

 Historical Background

Just as astrology – study of cosmic objects alleged influence on human life –  was a forerunner of astronomy, alchemy was a predecessor of chemistry.  Alchemy studied ways to obtain a magical substance, Philosopher’s Stone,  which was supposed to be a source of eternal youth and, as a side effect,  converted common, cheap metals such as lead to gold.

“Alchemist discovering phosphorus” is the Wright’s depiction of a real event.  In 1669 German alchemist Henig Brand after collecting and evaporating  human urine discovered a waxy substance emitting white light. Later,  analysis has shown that the substance was a chemical element, phosphorus.

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Elementary, S1E24, “Heroine”

A solitary bee, Anthidium florentinum

A solitary bee, Anthidium florentinum (Picture by Alvesgaspar, Wikimedia commons)

The first season ends on a sentimental note. Sherlock invites Watson on the roof where he keeps his hives. He tells her that he had managed crossing the rare solitary bee he obtained as a payment in one of the cases (S1E17, “Possibility Two” ?) to the honey bee. The hybrid is a new species, which he is going to name after Watson – E. watsonii.

I get the metaphor: Sherlock = solitary bee, honey bee = humanity and Watson had helped Holmes to return from his heroin addiction. But the highly unlikely hybrid of two separate  genuses (a taxon higher than species) is not a new species . “E. watsonii” can be sterile, e.g. unable to reproduce as a cross-genuses horse x donkey hybrid – mule. And even if it is fertile, a species should be stable during tens of years and in a natural habitat.

So sorry, Watson, I don’t think you’ll have a species named after you.